Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Catherine Threat watches students as they arrive at Courtenay Elementary Language Arts Center in Chicago in this Oct. 7, 2013 file photo taken in Chicago. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)
by Russ Bynum
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.
Catherine Threat sat at the bar, typing a note to her friends on Facebook.
“How do I serve my country from this barstool in the only restaurant in this tiny town outside a training base that is mostly shut down?” she wrote.
The 40-year-old staff sergeant in the Army Reserve returned from Afghanistan in July, taking a civilian job at Fort McCoy in central Wisconsin.
Then, last week, she and most of her colleagues were furloughed — a maddening existence for a woman who isn’t used to sitting still for very long.
So she headed to Chicago to help fellow veterans patrol the streets to help keep school children safe. It wasn’t much different from the foot patrols she did during her three years in Afghanistan.
Foot patrols there created a presence, built bonds and deterred violence.
“That’s what we’re doing here, too,” she said as she stood with other veterans outside an elementary school in a neighborhood that has had gang violence and other crime.
The assignment was short-lived. Threat was called back to Fort McCoy, along with hundreds of other civilian employees.
She didn’t see the recall as a victory “because there are still a lot of people out of work” because of the shutdown.
But either way, she was grateful for the chance to serve in Chicago.
“Sometimes, I think this has almost been better for me. I’ve gotten more out of it than I’m contributing,” she said, quietly monitoring children walking by her.
“But hopefully, I contributed something.”
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.
Jonathan Corso sat at his dining room table, the signs of a terrible week all around him.
At his feet, his family’s beloved dog, Dixie. The sad-eyed, 14-year-old spaniel/mutt has terminal cancer and the day before had been given only about a month to live. Under his feet, the banging of workmen installing a new $6,500 furnace at his Decatur, Ga., bungalow after the old one broke.
And there was Corso, home at 9:30 on a Friday morning. He would normally be at work at the Atlanta regional office of the Economic Development Administration, a small federal agency that provides help and construction grants to industrial parks, colleges and local governments.
Corso, 44, and his wife, Liza, who works at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, were both furloughed.
In recent years, their federal jobs seemed stable while people working in state and local government and many private companies saw wage freezes or layoffs.
But now this.
The couple has savings, and they and their 7-year-old son should be fine financially for a while.
There have been a few silver linings: The couple went to lunch together on a weekday. Corso, a marathoner, began his daily 10-mile run at 6 a.m. rather than his more onerous 4:45 a.m. usual start time. That allowed him to stay up one night to watch a baseball game.
“We’re trying to make the best of it right now,” Corso said.
Rob Howard has been working through the shutdown, but not at his day job as an information technology specialist for the federal Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, which oversees people on probation and supervised release.
Instead, he’s volunteering for So Others Might Eat, a Washington organization that serves meals to the poor and homeless. On Oct. 4, he was a coffee server. Two days later, he washed dishes after lunch.
“I just want to keep busy during this time,” said Howard, 45, who lives in Upper Marlboro, Md.
He has also gotten work done around his house, finally finding time to redo the floor in an upstairs bathroom. He took out the old linoleum and put down some black and white tile, which he said sat in his garage “forever.”
Howard also spent time cleaning.
“I could probably have a party at my house right now because it’s spotless,” he said.
One day he made two trips to the gym.
“I can’t stay idle too long or I’ll lose my mind,” he said.
Darquez Smith found himself furloughed from his job with the National Park Service just as his fiancee is due to give birth to their daughter later this month.
Smith, 23, of Xenia, Ohio, is spending his time off looking for a new job. Working as a park ranger at the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park, which tells the story of the Wright brothers, is his only source of income.
“Mentally, it’s definitely no fun at all,” said Smith, who has an interview lined up with a company next week. “It’s never fun to be out of work and not have the ability to go to work, and still have bills to pay.”
Smith said he’s looking for work in information technology and is pursuing an IT degree at Central State University.
By the time rent is due Nov. 1, Smith said he’ll need to be back at his Park Service job or have found other work. Utility bills and car insurance will soon follow, along with the added costs of raising a newborn.
“For me as a student, a full-time worker paying all the bills myself, with a lot of responsibilities, there’s never really a day off or a fun day,” he said.
During the government shutdown in 1995 and 1996, Dan Madrzykowski would occasionally sneak onto the Gaithersburg campus of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and check on some lab work or crunch some numbers.
“NIST is not really a bureaucracy; it’s more a series of labs. People are driven differently,” said Madrzykowski, a fire protection engineer from Damascus, Md., who’s worked for the agency for 28 years.
This time, security is tighter after 9/11, and rules forbidding furloughed employees from working are strictly enforced.
So Madrzykowski, whose work has helped develop better tactics and equipment for firefighters, is devoting time to projects for a professional group, the Society of Fire Protection Engineers. And he’s had to break his habit of answering email on his government-issued Blackberry from firefighters around the country.
Last week, Madrzykowski and colleagues had planned to begin work on developing standards for radio communications equipment to function in the extreme temperatures that firefighters face. The research is used by industry groups to set standards for equipment manufacturers.
That work will wait.
Madrzykowski said his biggest worry is that NIST won’t be able to recruit and retain young researchers because government work no longer has the stability that once made it attractive.
“I’m old. My wife works. We’ve got a little bit of a cushion,” he said. “But for young people in a metro area, they’re barely making it. We’ve lost several young people to private industry.”
Bynum reported from Savannah, Ga. Associated Press writers Martha Irvine in Chicago, Mike Stobbe in Atlanta, Bridget Murphy in Boston, Jessica Gresko in Washington, Amanda Lee Myers in Cincinnati and Matthew Barakat in McLean, Va., contributed to this story.