A screen shot of the http://nationalzoo.si.edu website informs visitors that because of the federal government shutdown, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington DC will remain closed. (AFP)
Washington, Oct. 1 (Reuters): The US government shutdown has divided hundreds of thousands of workers into “essential” and “non-essential”, bruising egos and leaving many grappling with the financial toll of unpaid leave.
“I'm heading in to be non-essential,” said one jeans-clad Environmental Protection Agency worker as she joined many others headed to work today to cancel upcoming meetings, lock up files and put out-of-office messages on email and voicemail.
The US government shut down for the first time in 17 years after Congress failed to agree on a budget, dividing hundreds of thousands federal workers into a painful pecking order of “essential” employees who have to keep working and “non-essential” workers sent on unpaid leave.
Some 800,000 to 1 million US employees are expected to be furloughed as a result of the shutdown. They will be required to suspend work-related activity, including checking email or using work-issued phones and laptops, until lawmakers break the political stalemate and pass a spending bill.
“All of us were told not to report to work. We can’t even report to campus to water our plants,” said Suzanne Kerba, a health communications specialist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Pinning the “preventable” shutdown on Republicans, President Barack Obama today wrote to federal workers, saying they do valued work “in a political climate that, too often in recent years, has treated you like a punching bag”. “You have endured three years of a federal pay freeze, harmful sequester cuts and now, a shutdown of our government... None of this is fair to you,” he said in messages posted online.
Federal employees whose work has been labelled not essential have been hit hard as political dysfunction repeatedly stifles negotiations between Democrats, who control the Senate, and Republicans, who lead the House of Representatives.
This is the second time this year many have been sent home without pay for days. The first furloughs resulted from across-the-board government spending cuts known as the “sequester”.
“This slap in the face is coming amid a year of furloughs,” said one EPA employee, who spoke anonymously to express concerns freely. “Morale here isn’t great... Personally, I’m staring at months of work and preparation going down the toilet if we’re shut down for any significant length of time, and for what?”
Whether furloughed employees would eventually get paid remained unclear. House members from Maryland and Virginia said today they had introduced a bill to require all federal employees to receive retroactive pay for the shutdown, which is what happened in a previous shutdown that ended in early 1996.