They’re experienced research engineers and park rangers still in college, attorneys who enforce environmental regulations and former soldiers who took civilian jobs with the military after coming home from war.
And all of them have one thing in common: They were sent home on unpaid furlough last week after a political standoff between the president and Congress forced a partial shutdown of the federal government. More than 800,000 federal workers were affected at first, though the Pentagon has since recalled most of its idled 350,000 employees.
What these sidelined government employees are doing with their spare time varies as widely as the jobs they perform. Some are tightening their budgets at home, watching what they spend on food and other necessities, fearing it could be weeks before they earn another paycheck. Others are having a tough time keeping their workplace projects shelved and agency emails unread.
While Congress and the White House work on a deal to ensure furloughed workers receive back pay once the shutdown ends, some expenses can’t be put off, whether it’s replacing a broken furnace for $6,500 or buying diapers for a baby due before the month ends.
Here are the stories of just a few of the government workers directly affected by the shutdown.
As the government shutdown began its second week, Donna Cebrat was focused on stretching each dollar of her savings under the assumption she might not be able to return to work for a month or longer.
“Instead of having a dinner, I’ll have a bowl of cereal. Maybe for dinner and lunch. Or maybe I’ll go down to McDonald’s for a hamburger off the dollar menu,” said Cebrat, 46, who works for the FBI at its office in Savannah, Ga. “Lots of budget cuts. Not that I was living extravagantly before.”
Cebrat makes her living processing requests for public access to FBI records made under the Freedom of Information Act. She lives alone in a middle-class suburb and estimates the money in her savings account could last her anywhere from two to six months.
She checks headlines for any news on negotiations between the president and Congress, but said she avoids reading full stories or watching shutdown reports on TV that would only bring her down further.
“I don’t need to see the name-calling,” Cebrat said. “I just need to see the headline.”
Otherwise Cebrat has spent her days sanding and repainting her bathroom walls – a new tub, toilet and vanity will have to wait until next year – and taking walks in her neighborhood. She’s avoided trips to the mall or the movies.