Hundreds of thousands of federal employees in the Washington region began their workweek on a gray-sky Monday facing a brief, unnerving government shutdown that left many of them fearing what lies ahead.
Workers throughout the nation’s capital were packing up their desks, collecting their furlough letters and leaving their offices when word came shortly after noon that the Senate had reached an agreement to reopen — until Feb. 8.
“Oh, good. We’ll get to do all this over again in three weeks?” asked a Department of Justice staffer who, as he walked on Pennsylvania Avenue, wished to remain anonymous so he could more freely blast elected leaders who had once again failed to make a long-term deal.
“How do I know what they’ll do?” he said with a laugh. “They clearly don’t have a clue themselves.”
Errick King, a federal employee for 30 years, thinks he knows exactly what lawmakers will do next: more of the same.
Congress has not balanced a budget in years, and King doesn’t expect them to in February. It’s left the father of three feeling so hopeless that he’s considered changing his family’s everyday lifestyle, from skipping the after-church meals out on Sundays to nixing the weekly bowling games they so enjoy.
The relentless instability, he said, is leading career employees to retire early, taking buyouts and leaving behind agencies bereft of institutional knowledge.
“People are fed up,” said King, an IT specialist with the Bureau of the Fiscal Service in Hyattsville, Md. “I think it hurts the government overall because you are losing that knowledge and skill. We are reliant on that to provide quality service.”
The Washington region is home to the largest concentration of federal employees and contractors in the country, with 367,000 who work for the government and 450,000 who depend on federal contracts, said Stephen S. Fuller, an economist at George Mason University who noted that about a quarter of the area’s economy depends on federal payroll or procurement spending.
In the hours before the Senate came to its temporary resolution, uncertainty over how long the shutdown would last had left people throughout the area both angry and anxious.
“It is a huge pain in the ass,” said a researcher on his way into the National Institutes of Health on Monday morning. The man, who declined to give his name, had come in to stop a stem-cell experiment designed to determine the cause of a disease that affects facial bones.
He worried about the effect on the NIH Clinical Center, where many people are treated with last-ditch experimental therapies.
“Nobody can be recruited to clinical trials” during a shutdown, he said. “We’re talking about cancers and pediatric cancers. So now we’re talking about children who won’t get treatment if it goes on.”
Frustrations were just as high outside the State Department, where furloughed employees came to the office to conduct what was being called an “orderly shutdown” — writing out-of-office email messages, canceling appointments and securing files. They then had to sign papers acknowledging the furlough before they could go home, under strict instructions to turn off their work cellphones and not discuss work with non-furloughed employees.
The exact number of employees furloughed was not immediately known, although the number was expected to far exceed those affected by the 2013 shutdown when the State Department lost 4,000 hours of work.
For this shutdown, 63 percent of workers had been designated eligible for furloughs. But because some bureaus had money from two-year appropriations, and others generate fees that allow them to continue operating, not all of them would be furloughed.
As a result, every U.S. embassy and consulate overseas remained open. And many passport offices were still processing passport applications, unless they were located in federal buildings that were closed because of the shutdown. Every bureau within the State Department remained open, although in some cases they were maintained with only a skeleton staff.
The sidewalks outside the building in Foggy Bottom were packed with employees walking in both directions. The furloughed workers, many with a look of grim resignation on their faces, left carrying sheets of paper outlining the rules and their acknowledgment of receipt.
“I’m going to go home and go back to sleep,” said one Foreign Service officer who declined to provide her name or the bureau in which she works.
She said she had arrived at 8:30 a.m. and spent two hours fulfilling the orderly shutdown protocol before heading back home. She described the mood in her bureau as one of “everyone shrugging our shoulders.”
“We’re all watching the OPM website,” she said, referring to the Office of Personnel Management — “and the news.”
She said some of her furloughed co-workers spent part of the morning trying to sneak in a last bit of work.
“Everyone’s itching to work,” she said. “It shows how dedicated everyone is. Some people got on their computers, and colleagues said, ‘Stop it. You’re not allowed to work.’ ”
She said views varied on who was to blame for the shutdown.
“It depends on your political leanings,” she said. “It’s something that surely could have been averted.”
Michael E. Miller, Steve Hendrix and Lenny Bernstein contributed to this report.