Morale Plummets For Federal Workers Facing Unending Furlough

Originally published on October 5, 2013 3:13 pm

The work that Shaun O'Connell does is required by law, yet now he's sidelined by the government shutdown.

O'Connell reviews disability claims for the Social Security Administration in New York, checking that no one's gaming the system, while ensuring people with legitimate medical problems are compensated properly.

Billions of dollars are at stake with this kind of work, yet O'Connell is considered a nonessential employee for purposes of the partial government shutdown.

"If you stick with the semantics of essential and nonessential, you could easily be offended," says O'Connell, who has worked for Social Security for 20 years.

There's a difference between what's urgent and what's important. Like other federal employees, O'Connell understands that what he does isn't necessarily crucial on a daily basis, like being a trauma surgeon with the Veterans Administration, for instance, or a member of the Capitol Hill police force.

But he believes what he does is necessary — and that there will be a big backlog of cases waiting for him when he is able to get back to work.

Whenever that may be.

"People aren't having a heart attack and don't need their wounds dressed, but it doesn't change the fact that what we do over the long term makes an absolute difference to the quality of life in this country," says Carolyn Federoff, an attorney with the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Boston. "I never doubt that."

Who Is Essential?

Every agency has to determine which employees are essential and which ones must be furloughed.

Actually, the terms of art now describe federal workers as "exempt" or "not exempt" from furloughs. The use of "nonessential" to describe employees during the federal shutdowns of 1995 and 1996 was considered demeaning.

But "exempt" hasn't exactly caught on. Conservative commentators have seized on the fact that the government is doing without 800,000 workers — including most of those at the Environmental Protection Agency — as proof of waste.

"According to the federal government, 94 percent of EPA employees are 'non-essential," tweeted Campaign for Liberty, a group founded by former Texas GOP Rep. Ron Paul. "Seems low."

Needless to say, federal workers resent their careers being treated so cavalierly.

"We do feel dissed by the whole thing," says Tyrone Van Hoesen, who works on rural bankruptcy issues for the Department of Agriculture in St. Louis.

Can't Get No Respect

What bugs furloughed employees such as Van Hoesen is not so much being labeled as superfluous, but continuously being treated with disregard by politicians in Washington.

Government work has traditionally been about as steady as employment gets. But civil servants have gone without a raise for three years now and many didn't need to wait for the shutdown to face furlough days, thanks to the spending cuts known as sequestration.

"Every time we have one of these budget showdowns, we look at each other and say, 'What do we lose this time?' " Federoff says.

Many federal employees have held their jobs for decades and recognize that they still enjoy vastly greater job security than private sector peers. But this business of being out on furlough is already getting old. And there's no end in sight.

As is the case for O'Connell, Cynthia McKnight's job — ferreting out potential waste in public housing programs for HUD — is mandated by law. But like him, she's been furloughed from her job in New York City.

"A lot of people are very angry because it's not our fault," she says. "We're not responsible for this. We want to work, and we're not able to."

Work That Matters

O'Connell says he was working on disability claims up until the moment he was forced off the clock this past Tuesday. He found several mistakes other officials had made along the way, including an eligibility claim involving a person with kidney failure who is on renal dialysis.

That person should be getting a bigger check, but will have to wait until the shutdown is over to see it.

Processing such claims has been enough of a priority that Congress in 1996 authorized about $4 billion over seven years to clear up a backlog of 4.3 million cases.

But the backlog has since grown again. The shutdown won't help matters.

Many federal workers perform such "back office" functions that are mostly invisible to the public — but without which Social Security claims aren't processed, public housing units don't get built and polluted sites don't get cleaned up.

"The reality is, with the current funding environment, we're certainly not going to be paid any more money to make up for lost time," says Mike Weiss, a project manager with NASA in Greenbelt, Md. "It is enormously difficult to maintain the motivation of the workforce."

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Federal workers found themselves divided into two groups this week - the essential and the nonessential. The essentials went to work; the nonessentials did not. But is it hard to enjoy any time off if you're not only not getting paid, but you have been labeled nonessential? NPR's Alan Greenblatt has been speaking with government workers. He joins us now from St. Louis Public Radio. Alan, thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: You went to a protest in St. Louis, by federal workers. How were they feeling?

GREENBLATT: Well, of course they're not very happy. For them this is the latest insult. They look at it as part of a string of having been used as bargaining chips or as an ATM during other budget fights. They've had furlough days through this year due to spending cuts known as sequestration. Civil servants haven't gotten a raise for three years. And now of course they don't know how long they're going to be out of work with the current shutdown.

SIMON: And they may have mortgages, they may have car payments, right?

GREENBLATT: Well, of course they have all those things. I talked to one woman who's already told her kids if this goes on much longer she's canceling Christmas. It seems like everyone I talk to either has a kid for whom they have to pay tuition or they have student loans themselves if they're young enough.

SIMON: What kind of jobs do nonessential, and I'll put that in quotes, "nonessential" federal workers have, the ones you met?

GREENBLATT: It's a wide range of activities. There are people who are helping people with rural bankruptcy issues or with writing contracts for insurance so that multi-family units can be built for public housing. I talked to somebody with NASA who is working on a project to send satellites that will convert data transmissions from radio frequencies to lasers. That satellite's not going up until 2017, so right now he's not essential. At NASA, if you don't have something in the air, you're not working right now.

SIMON: Did anybody talk about what it's like to be labeled nonessential?

GREENBLATT: Well, I think people have an understanding that it's a technical term. It's actually been changed since the '95-'96 shutdowns to exempt and non-exempt. Those haven't really caught on. Of course they feel very insulted when some conservatives use this as a talking point in the current debate, that if we have 800,000 nonessential workers, it proves that the government is bloated.

But I think there's a difference between urgent and important.

SIMON: I wonder, Alan, did you run into any workers who have been maybe putting money aside for just this kind of eventuality?

GREENBLATT: I did actually find one woman who has the six months of savings that financial planners would tell you you need to have. But she's pretty rare. Most people don't have that much saved away, but some people have heard the rhetoric over the last couple years, they saw it coming. This fellow who I talked to with Social Security, they have a certain quota of disability claims that they have to check by the end of the fiscal year, so he made sure to get as much overtime as he could working through that backlog so that he could have a little bit saved away for just such a circumstance.

SIMON: NPR's Alan Greenblatt, speaking with us from St. Louis. Thank you for this essential conversation, Alan.

GREENBLATT: Well, thank you, Scott.


SIMON: And you're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.