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Morale Plummets For Federal Workers Facing Unending Furlough

The work that Shaun O'Connell does is required by law, yet now he's sidelined by the government shutdown.

O'Connell reviews disability claims for the Social Security Administration in New York, checking that no one's gaming the system, while ensuring people with legitimate medical problems are compensated properly.

Billions of dollars are at stake with this kind of work, yet O'Connell is considered a nonessential employee for purposes of the partial government shutdown.

"If you stick with the semantics of essential and nonessential, you could easily be offended," says O'Connell, who has worked for Social Security for 20 years.

There's a difference between what's urgent and what's important. Like other federal employees, O'Connell understands that what he does isn't necessarily crucial on a daily basis, like being a trauma surgeon with the Veterans Administration, for instance, or a member of the Capitol Hill police force.

But he believes what he does is necessary — and that there will be a big backlog of cases waiting for him when he is able to get back to work.

Whenever that may be.

"People aren't having a heart attack and don't need their wounds dressed, but it doesn't change the fact that what we do over the long term makes an absolute difference to the quality of life in this country," says Carolyn Federoff, an attorney with the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Boston. "I never doubt that."

Who Is Essential?

Every agency has to determine which employees are essential and which ones must be furloughed.

Actually, the terms of art now describe federal workers as "exempt" or "not exempt" from furloughs. The use of "nonessential" to describe employees during the federal shutdowns of 1995 and 1996 was considered demeaning.

But "exempt" hasn't exactly caught on. Conservative commentators have seized on the fact that the government is doing without 800,000 workers — including most of those at the Environmental Protection Agency — as proof of waste.

"According to the federal government, 94 percent of EPA employees are 'non-essential," tweeted Campaign for Liberty, a group founded by former Texas GOP Rep. Ron Paul. "Seems low."

Furloughed from his job with the Agriculture Department, Tyrone Van Hoesen joins fellow members of the American Federation of Government Employees protesting at the Federal Center in St. Louis.
Alan Greenblatt / NPR
Furloughed from his job with the Agriculture Department, Tyrone Van Hoesen joins fellow members of the American Federation of Government Employees protesting at the Federal Center in St. Louis.

Needless to say, federal workers resent their careers being treated so cavalierly.

"We do feel dissed by the whole thing," says Tyrone Van Hoesen, who works on rural bankruptcy issues for the Department of Agriculture in St. Louis.

Can't Get No Respect

What bugs furloughed employees such as Van Hoesen is not so much being labeled as superfluous, but continuously being treated with disregard by politicians in Washington.

Government work has traditionally been about as steady as employment gets. But civil servants have gone without a raise for three years now and many didn't need to wait for the shutdown to face furlough days, thanks to the spending cuts known as sequestration.

"Every time we have one of these budget showdowns, we look at each other and say, 'What do we lose this time?' " Federoff says.

Many federal employees have held their jobs for decades and recognize that they still enjoy vastly greater job security than private sector peers. But this business of being out on furlough is already getting old. And there's no end in sight.

As is the case for O'Connell, Cynthia McKnight's job — ferreting out potential waste in public housing programs for HUD — is mandated by law. But like him, she's been furloughed from her job in New York City.

"A lot of people are very angry because it's not our fault," she says. "We're not responsible for this. We want to work, and we're not able to."

Work That Matters

O'Connell says he was working on disability claims up until the moment he was forced off the clock this past Tuesday. He found several mistakes other officials had made along the way, including an eligibility claim involving a person with kidney failure who is on renal dialysis.

That person should be getting a bigger check, but will have to wait until the shutdown is over to see it.

Processing such claims has been enough of a priority that Congress in 1996 authorized about $4 billion over seven years to clear up a backlog of 4.3 million cases.

But the backlog has since grown again. The shutdown won't help matters.

Many federal workers perform such "back office" functions that are mostly invisible to the public — but without which Social Security claims aren't processed, public housing units don't get built and polluted sites don't get cleaned up.

"The reality is, with the current funding environment, we're certainly not going to be paid any more money to make up for lost time," says Mike Weiss, a project manager with NASA in Greenbelt, Md. "It is enormously difficult to maintain the motivation of the workforce."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
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