life under shutdown
As a general rule, we avoid political, sensitive, and potentially divisive subjects in this blog. We write about our travels, our kids, and life in the Foreign Service while steering clear of the polemics of local politics and the issues we work on overseas. Despite spending some of our Foreign Service careers in Washington, we also try to ignore Washington intrigue and rarely discuss American politics. That said, it would be intellectually dishonest to continue posting about our goings-on without writing about the ongoing government shutdown, which is now in its 24th day and has come to be a prominent feature of our careers and our lives.
Including the hours-long Rand Paul shutdown last year, this is the fourth lapse in appropriations of our Foreign Service career. The first time we experienced a government shutdown in the Foreign Service was 2013. We had just arrived in Chisinau and D had been scheduled to travel to Kyiv for work when the lapse in funding occurred. S, four months pregnant and speaking no Russian, had left for Ukraine a day early. D was literally on his way to the airport that Friday in late September – the last workday of the fiscal year – when he received a phone call from the Embassy telling him that his trip was cancelled due to the impending shutdown. The Embassy cancelled his ticket reservation and D had to repurchase the ticket on arrival at the airport, lucking out that no one else had snagged the seat on the sold out, once-a-day flight. D used annual leave to cover his travel, which in retrospect should not have been allowed since furloughed employees cannot take paid leave and “excepted” employees (those deemed too essential to be furloughed) must report to work.
Then there were the two brief shutdowns in early 2018, the first lasting a handful of days and the second only a few hours. This one, however, feels qualitatively different, both because the government is only “partially” shut down and because there seems to be no end in sight, leaving those who, like us, are personally affected in precarious limbo. There has been a lot written about the effects of this shutdown: about the financial difficulties for low-paid federal workers who live paycheck to paycheck; about the pain felt by government contractors, who are not entitled to back pay when the shutdown eventually ends and some of whom have been laid off already in light of lapsed contracts; about the myriad government services, big and small, which many apparently notice only once their absence is felt; about a thousand and one critical complications – like sorting out insurance coverage for serious medical illnesses without a paycheck; about the hundreds of thousands of federal employees who have been furloughed and the hundreds of thousands more who are prohibited by law from striking and who must report to work and continue doing their jobs despite not being paid; and much, much more.
In our case, we represent one of each group. S is in long-term training, which is necessary for her to be able to do her job in Manila but obviously fails to clear the bar for essential government services during a shutdown. She has been furloughed and will remain so until the shutdown ends. D was furloughed initially, but has been un-furloughed since the beginning of this month. His office must stay open and has been operating at fifty percent staffing, with a rotation to ensure equitability in burden sharing. Of course, neither of us will get paid until the shutdown ends, which is not quite how we envisioned the dual-career dream when S joined the Foreign Service last summer.
Still, we count ourselves among the lucky ones. We have some savings and no loans to pay off. We have to pay rent, of course, and bills – same as everyone else – but we don’t have a mortgage so we don’t risk losing our house if our saving run out. We are all too aware that many of our 800,000 colleagues who have been directly affected by this lapse of appropriations are not so fortunate. Of course, if this does drag on for “months or even years,” our current position would not remain tenable for long. In fact, we would run into logistical challenges before financial difficulties would force us to reconsider our career choices. Chief among these is the fact that our non-renewable lease runs out in June when we are supposed to depart for Manila. If S’s missed training forces her to delay our departure date, we would have to look for new lodging, as our current landlords will reoccupy their residence this summer. D would also be in a difficult situation, as his current assignment expires in June and he has no onward posting.
Because DC is a hub for federal workers, the District has developed a defense mechanism for coping with government shutdowns. There are restaurants and food banks that provide free food to furloughed workers and bars that offer discounted, shutdown-themed cocktails. On Friday, D went to a concert at the Fillmore in Silver Spring – a show he had marked on his calendar months ago – and found out that his government ID entitled him to a gratis entry, part of the Fillmore’s “Free Furlough Friday” special.
This kind of solidarity from local businesses is great, but ultimately does not balance out the pernicious effects of the shutdown. We appreciate the availability of freebies, but we would much rather return to the jobs we love and be compensated for our work. However you feel about our elected leaders or the proposed wall on our southwestern border, we hope you want the same for us and our 800,000 similarly affected colleagues. Call us “federal workers” or “public servants,” we are tax-paying Americans with families to support; ending the shutdown is not a political issue – it’s a human one.