#ShutdownStories: One Woman's Account on Surviving The Longest Government Shutdown in American History

Enter the hashtag into any social media channel and you’ll be flooded with countless posts by federal employees voicing their anxiety, grief, and outrage over the past month’s events. On December 22, 2018 the United States federal government officially shut down. It would not reopen for 35 days, marking it the longest recorded shutdown in American history. It is reported that some 800,000 federal employees were impacted by the closure, some being furloughed and others being summoned back to work without pay.

For those of us that are not government workers, it can almost be easy to tune out this sort of thing. We sympathize, of course, but if we’re not actively reading and watching the news each day, current events such as this can be muffled, fading softly in the backgrounds of our consciousness. In order to gain some insight into the depth of the situation, I spoke with my friend Katie*, a federal employee whose name has been changed for the purpose of this piece.

Q. What do you do for work?

A. I am a part of a group that focuses on coral reef ecosystems. Our work provides key insights to coral reef monitoring, impacts on reef health, economic impacts and coastal zone protection.

Q. How long have you worked there?

A. I’ve been working here for about 8 months

Q. What has the past month been like for you?

A. It has been incredibly stressful. As a recent Master’s graduate, I have no savings and have been left with a large amount of student debt. I guess semi-fortunately I already had a standing part-time job (since my federal wages do not cover all of my expenses) so much of it was spent scraping for hours to work minimum wage in retail, in attempt to pay off as many bills as I could. I had to accept that if the shutdown lasted into February I might lose my apartment, take out a loan or find work elsewhere.

...there has been a definite shift in people’s perception of their own job security.  

Q. Have you returned to work?

A. Yes.

Q. What has the atmosphere at your workplace been like since returning?

A. It’s been interesting. The first day back in the office the energy was palpable, everyone was excited to be back doing the work they love. It almost felt like the first day of school, with an air of cautious optimism that we would be able to continue for more than just three weeks. The second day, tensions were running high as everyone rushed to figure out what deadlines had and had not changed, priority of projects, and where exactly they had left off over a month ago. Stopping in the middle of scientific projects presents a number of logistical problems. There is an underlying sense of urgency to push everything out as soon as possible in the event of another shutdown in February. I would also say, there has been a definite shift in people’s perception of their own job security.  

Q. Did you miss a paycheck(s)?

A. I missed two.

I [...] want people to understand that being furloughed is like being in a state of limbo, it’s not a vacation.

Q. The government has officially reopened; do you know if/when you will be paid?

A. Yes. We will receive back pay as soon as possible, at the latest by February 1st.

Q. Looking at the coming weeks ahead with this being a temporary reopening, how are you feeling?

A. Stressed. I just wish we could know what was going on so we could make plans. We have field work coming up that may be affected by the next shutdown and model runs that we are trying to time appropriately. Personally, I am trying to save as much as possible in the event we will be out of work again soon.

Q. Is there anything that you’d like people to know coming out of this whole situation?

A. I think people need to know just how important government workers are and the many different vital roles they fill. I have read numerous accounts saying ‘everything was fine, we don’t need them’ – and that is definitely not the case. I also want people to understand that being furloughed is like being in a state of limbo, it’s not a vacation. You cannot travel or make any plans because of the possibility of having to resume work any day. You also have no income and there are strict rules on what type of outside work you can do when furloughed. It cannot relate to anything you do in your normal job, which leaves many highly skilled peoples’ only option to work minimum wage positions. I think it is inhumane and unsustainable to force people to report to work without pay. I cannot imagine the stress of having a family and a mortgage and being furloughed. At least in my case, I could just pack up and move if it really came down to it. Unfortunately, every day being furloughed is filled with the stress of uncertainty and what you will do if and when your money runs out.

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