LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A weather forecaster says he may have to live off the money he’s been setting aside for a Caribbean vacation. A worker in Washington hopes to polish his resume so he can retire from public service and work in the private sector. An accountant wonders if she can put off her mortgage for a month.
Federal workers like them across the U.S. will be out of work and without a paycheck if the looming government shutdown isn’t averted. Some say they will make the best of it, using the spare time to get a few things done. Others are far more fearful of how they’ll provide for their families.
The partial shutdown, which could start at midnight Friday, leaves workers with many questions – some serious, others more mundane: How long, if at all, will they be away from their jobs? Who will be deemed “essential” and be told to come to work? Should I cancel the kids’ daycare? Will I still be able to afford that pre-planned vacation?
About 800,000 federal government workers would be affected by a shutdown. Congress would have to decide if furloughed employees could recoup back pay if they have to stay home.
The ripple effects stretch far beyond the Washington metro area, where many federal employees work and live, to places like Chicago, where more than 100 people facing no paychecks protested outside a federal building with signs, “Don’t Punish the Public” and “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out.”
National parks would close, and the IRS would not process paper tax returns. But the nation’s federal prisons would remain open and air traffic controllers would report to work, as would federal inspectors who enforce safety rules and other workers deemed essential.
In Arkansas, National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Koch said he worries about how a shutdown could affect his family, including his two children. He said he’d still report to work for business as usual – but he wouldn’t get a paycheck until the shutdown ended. He’s putting more into savings to prepare, he said.
“I was actually saving up for a Caribbean cruise, but that money may actually be used to live on. It’s certainly more important to make sure we can get the bills paid and provide for our family,” he said.
Others saw opportunity.
John Haines, 64, has worked for the federal government more than 35 years. His duties as deputy director of the office of community renewal at the Department of Housing and Urban Development keep him busy all day long – leaving him little time to prepare for his transition to a new job in the private sector. He said he’s been meaning to update his resume for some time.
“I guarantee you if I’m not coming to work Monday morning that I’ll have more energy to do the kind of work that I should have done already” to prepare for the future, he said.
Haines wasn’t even sure if he could count on a three-day weekend. He was headed to a seminar this weekend in North Carolina and planned to visit a son there who serves in the National Guard, but he didn’t want to miss work Monday if his office was open.
“So I’m not doing any planning beyond the immediate future,” he said.
In Salt Lake City, home to about 12,300 federal employees, Leslie Steffs was applying for new hospital positions. The 55-year-old single mother, an administrative assistant assigned to the downtown Wallace F. Bennett Federal Building, said she was concerned about making mortgage payments.
“Some people say we’ll just have to tough it out, but I have a family to support. This is no joke,” Steffs said.
That was echoed by Justin Castro, a park service worker at the Oklahoma City Bombing National Memorial.
“Not having a check means not paying rent and not paying bills that need to be paid,” he said.
A sheriff on the eastern end of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado is encouraging people to visit. Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith said he’ll provide emergency services and law enforcement to visitors in the park area within his county in the event of a shutdown.
He said merchants in nearby Estes Park would be hurt by a lack of visitors and shouldn’t be pawns in the budget showdown.
However, Patrick O’Driscoll, a spokesman at the National Park Service’s regional office in suburban Denver, said Smith’s department has no jurisdiction and the park will be closed if there’s a shutdown.
Limitations would not just affect the states. Aaron Tarver, a spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, said U.S. citizens will still have consular services if needed, but passports would be limited to emergencies. In the Philippines, the U.S. Embassy in Manila would only provide limited and emergency services if a shutdown happened, spokeswoman Rebecca Thompson said.
In Chicago, one of the demonstrators was Julie Sidlo, an Environmental Protection Agency accountant who endured the last government shutdown in the 1990s. This time, she doesn’t know how her job would be affected but is preparing for the worst, she said.
“I’ve sent an email to my mortgage company asking if I can delay payment for the next month, and gotten no response. I don’t know if I can file for unemployment,” Sidlo said, adding that she’s set money aside for several weeks. “I’ve decided not to make any purchases I don’t need to. I don’t go to restaurants.”
The government continued lurching toward a shutdown even as Congress continued negotiations to avert it and leaders expressed hope they could get a deal done. House Republicans advanced a stopgap measure Thursday that would keep the government running for another week, cut $12 billion in domestic spending and fund the Pentagon for the rest of the year. But President Barack Obama threatened to veto the bill even before it passed, and Senate Democrats showed no willingness to allow a vote on it. Both sides failed to reach agreement in middle-of-the-night talks.
Haines, who joined HUD in 1979 and before that worked for the Department of Transportation, said attrition at his workplace had pushed him to more rigorous hours. Though retirement-eligible, he’s now considering private sector jobs in economic development and said the threat of a shutdown laid bare what he said was a depressing change in the way the public values government workers.
“The advantage of being a federal employee is, supposedly, job stability. You sacrifice your total pay for whatever the job satisfaction and a high degree of job security,” Haines said. “That’s the tradeoff, supposedly – and, supposedly, good benefits.”
On Thursday, though, he wasn’t so sure of that.