The Effect of the Federal Shutdown on Federal Workers


Crater Lake, a National Park in Oregon. National Parks are highly impacted by the government shutdown due to park rangers being furloughed.
Photo via the US National Park Service.

On December 22, President Donald Trump shut down the government over funding for his border wall. By January 12, it had broken the record for the longest ever government shutdown. While a big effect of the shutdown was the halt on legislation in DC, the bigger concerns were the federal workers being affected. Government workers were either furloughed or put to work without pay. Some workers had no means of income for themselves or their families.

“I immediately lost structure in my life. You can’t really plan out even a few days in advance knowing you might be needed back at work tomorrow if the government reopens,” says Camden Bruner. Bruner, a wildlife biologist working for the U.S Forest Service in Oregon, felt the immediate impacts of the shutdown. He has worked for the Forest Service for six months and has been a federal worker for five years. Although he had been following the news and knew there was going to be a shutdown coming up, he mentions that, “I think we all knew pretty quickly it wasn’t going to be a short shutdown, though I didn’t expect it to last as long as it did.” For federal workers, not knowing when the shutdown would end caused problems as they could never fully estimate or guess how long it will last. This means not only are they not getting paid, but they are having to find new methods to pay for their everyday living. Some workers had to start selling their belongings to get money for rent, while others scraped by, through digging into their savings accounts.

 Bruner believes he and his colleagues do their jobs because they love it. “Most of us could make more money in the private sector but prefer the service aspect of our jobs. This shutdown didn’t just stress government workers financially, it also really hurt morale. It is just hard not to take a shutdown somewhat personally, like our hard work wasn’t valued.” Many federal workers have a lot of passion for the jobs they do, especially those like Bruner who work in National Parks where the shutdown had major impact. One park ranger at Glacier National Park, recounted that some of the hardest parts of the shutdown was the effect on the public lands that people harmed. People came to these parks and threw trash on the ground, hurting the lands which park rangers had worked to keep protected.

 In many cities and states, restaurants and other businesses started offering free food and essentials to federal workers to help them through the shutdown. In Portland, the Oregon Humane Society was giving furloughed workers free pet food to help them maintain the money that was needed for their own food. Bruner noted that the “local response on the Oregon Coast was extremely supportive for federal employees. A lot of local citizens and businesses offered to help furloughed employees especially with our Coast Guard who were working hard without pay.” While these gestures were helpful, it did not solve the overall problem of the shutdown. An anonymous federal worker said, “I did not have an expectation for how long the shutdown would last. I heard rumors that people didn’t think it would be very long but I also heard rumors that it could last a long time.” This uncertainty left federal workers anxious for the future as they have no control in what happens.

 On February 15 2019, after 35 days, the government reopened. However, because funding for the government was only agreed on for a few weeks, the possibility of a second shutdown is very likely.
As of right now, federal workers are back to their jobs, hoping that the government does not re-shut. Upon returning, many employees stated that work was backed up or hectic. For one worker, the shutdown left everything a mess, expressing that, “This first week has really just been about identifying everything that had been impacted and what the highest priority to address first.” While they are back at work, many federal workers are thinking towards the future and how they will sustain themselves if the government does shutdown again. For many federal workers, this shutdown felt unnecessary. The multiple days watching the news and wondering whether they would go another month without a paycheck gnawed on many. An anonymous Oregon resident said, “watching the President’s speech declaring the shutdown was ending, I couldn’t help but be struck by the fact that nothing was accomplished at all, and that it could have never happened, or ended much sooner with the same results.”

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