U.S. government workers feel sting of being 'non-essential'

Reuters

By Alina Selyukh

WASHINGTON, Oct 1 (Reuters) - The U.S. government shutdownhas divided hundreds of thousands of workers into thoseclassified as critically important and others seen as less so,bruising egos and leaving many grappling with the financial tollof unpaid leave.

"I'm heading in to be non-essential," said one EnvironmentalProtection Agency worker on the metro transit system on Tuesdayas she joined many others going to work just to cancel meetings,lock up files and set out-of-office messages on email and voicemail.

The U.S. government shut down for the first time in 17 yearsafter Congress failed to agree on a budget, splitting federalworkers into a painful pecking order of "essential" employeeswho have to keep working and "non-essential" workers sent onunpaid leave.

Some 800,000 to 1 million federal employees nationally areexpected to be furloughed because of the shutdown. They will berequired to suspend work-related activity, including checkingemail or using work-issued phones and laptops, until lawmakersbreak the political stalemate and pass a spending bill.

It's unclear how long that will last and how many employeeswill receive retroactive paychecks.

"All of us were told not to report to work. We can't evenreport to campus to water our plants," said Suzanne Kerba, ahealth communications specialist at the Centers for DiseaseControl and Prevention in Atlanta.

Pinning the "preventable" shutdown on Republicans, PresidentBarack Obama wrote to federal workers on Tuesday, saying they dovalued work "in a political climate that, too often in recentyears, has treated you like a punching bag."

Obama and his fellow Democrats have rejected Republicanefforts to use the funding impasse as leverage to change thepresident's signature healthcare law, known as "Obamacare."

Federal employees whose work has been labeled not essentialhave been hit hard as political dysfunction repeatedly stiflesnegotiations between Democrats, who control the Senate, andRepublicans, who lead the House of Representatives.

Many offices have had long-standing freezes on hiring newstaff and have not been able to offer raises to keep up with thegrowing cost of living for several years, workers say.

For many employees, Tuesday's furloughs are the second timethis year they have been sent home without pay. The firstfurloughs resulted from across-the-board government spendingcuts known as the "sequester," also prompted by disagreements inCongress over federal spending.

"As a government employee, I feel like a scapegoat and apawn in a political game. And I sort of feel like governmentworkers are chopped liver," said Ken Carroll, director of theFair Housing Assistance Program Division at the Department ofHousing and Urban Development, who was furloughed for severaldays earlier this year.

'NON-EXCEPTED' = NOT EXCEPTIONAL?

The divide of employees along "essential" and"non-essential" lines added to the hurt even as the officialsstarted to use the gentler terms of "excepted" and"non-excepted."

"I recognize how hurtful the label 'non-excepted' can be -all those who work at NIH are exceptional!" National Institutesof Health Director Francis Collins wrote in a note to hisworkers on Tuesday, seeking to boost morale as he confirmed thatthe majority of NIH workers would be furloughed.

Most government agencies similarly sent the majority oftheir workers home on Tuesday, including the EnvironmentalProtection Agency, the Internal Revenue Service and NASA.

Federal employees described confusing and sometimes messyrollouts of notifications over the past few days of who was andwas not essential - with some employees trying to argue theirwork's importance was underestimated.

Washington kicked into gear to support the troubled workersas "shutdown hoedown" parties, and all-day happy hour offerssprang up around the city.

Yoga, pilates and martial arts studios offered free ordiscounted classes, while shops and restaurants gave out freefood and snacks. One suburban restaurant even said it wouldcharge members of Congress double for coffee, while offeringfree cups to government workers.

FEELING THE FINANCIAL PAIN

While some furloughed workers said they were going to treatthe time off as a vacation - planning to hit the gym, catch upon house chores or devote more time to hobbies - financialconcerns weighed on many.

"The furlough will hit home," said Michael Bloom, an adviseron sustainability and green buildings at the General ServicesAdministration in Chicago, who is the main earner in a family offour. "We are OK if the shutdown lasts a couple days, but if itlasts two weeks, that missing paycheck is a mortgage payment."

Maria Njoku, a furloughed administrative worker at thePentagon, said she was still recovering financially from herearlier unpaid leave this year and was planning to rescheduleher upcoming mobile phone and cable TV payments.

Labor unions that represent federal employees excoriatedlawmakers on Tuesday for allowing the shutdown to occur, urgingCongress to approve legislation to ensure that furloughedfederal workers are eventually compensated.

Non-essential workers received back pay after the 1995-1996government shutdown.

"We appeal to House leadership to put an end to thisdangerous circus," Laborers International Union of North AmericaPresident Terry O'Sullivan said. "And Congress must then makethe federal employees who have been victims whole by providingfull back pay."

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