Federal government workers pray and prepare
WASHINGTON - They spent Sunday checking their bank balances. They talked with loved ones about which bills could be paid late. And they wondered whether working for the government was still a stable job.
For federal workers across the country, it was an anxiety-ridden weekend as the government came closer to a partial shutdown at midnight Monday.
The threat of an extended loss of pay is hitting a workforce already battered by a three-year wage freeze, months of furloughs forced by the budget cuts known as sequestration, and a dimmed perception of government work among many Americans.
At Washington's National Zoo, where thousands of visitors jostled to see images of the newborn panda, electrician Stephen Gripper planned to check the lighting in the Great Cats exhibit. Then he was going to bow his head and pray.
The threat of unpaid days off faced by more than 800,000 federal employees would be a real hardship for Gripper, 56.
He's already working two jobs - including free-lance handyman work - to try to help his children repay several hundred thousand dollars in student loans. He is proud to say they all went to college, but he's also broke. "I'm literally praying for God's grace to set America straight."
As the House and Senate took the day off with no resolution to their budget impasse in sight, many employees whose salaries would not be paid under a shutdown were upset at Congress for threatening their financial stability, trapping them in the middle of its political dysfunction, and making a mockery of their pride in public service.
"I try not to watch the news that much, because it can make you really angry," said maintenance worker Bobby Dillard of Upper Marlboro, Md. He and a colleague, brooms in hand, were standing near a second-floor restroom at the National Air and Space Museum.
His colleague, Valerie Dyson, said she had enough savings to manage for two or three weeks. "I just pray," Dyson said.
Bernard Gallagher, a longtime Smithsonian employee, spent Sunday visiting Leonardo da Vinci's Codex on the Flight of Birds, the 1505 document showing the artist's interest in human flight. "Because it's temporary, and what if?" he said, adding that the exhibit would close Oct. 22 and a shutdown could mean missing it.
At 58, Gallagher is planning to retire soon. He worries that if Congress does not vote to give him back pay for the days he might not be working, his pension could be a little less when it's calculated.
Many federal workers said privately that they wanted to express their opinions but were ordered to refer questions to their public affairs offices.
"We aren't [NSA leaker] Edward Snowden here. We just want to explain how this impacts ordinary Americans," said one zoo employee who asked to remain anonymous.
Supervisors referred all questions to the Office of Management and Budget.
Steven Posner, an OMB spokesman, said there was no gag order. But as a way of explaining how the workforce felt he referred a reporter to President Obama's statement Friday addressing the economic and emotional effects of a shutdown.
Gripper, the electrician, said that government work was once synonymous with job security. "But something's gone really wrong when I have to think about selling off items just to maintain my life."