(Corrects day to Tuesday instead of Monday in second paragraph)
By Alina Selyukh
WASHINGTON Oct 1 The U.S. 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 on Tuesday to cancel upcoming meetings, lock up
files and put out-of-office messages on email and voicemail.
The U.S. 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 U.S. 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 on Tuesday 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 labeled 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
"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?"
'EXCEPTED' AND NOT
The divide along the "essential" and "non-essential" lines
added to the hurt even as the officials started to use the
gentler terms of "excepted" and "non-excepted."
"I recognize how hurtful the label 'non-excepted' can be -
all those who work at NIH are exceptional!" National Institutes
of Health Director Francis Collins wrote in a note to his
workers on Tuesday, seeking to boost morale as he confirmed that
the majority of NIH workers will be furloughed.
One Internal Revenue Service worker said he got an email on
Friday saying he was considered an "excepted" employee but later
that day, another email said nobody in his division would be
considered excepted, based on new legal interpretations.
For those who are told they are essential, "they're
psyched," the IRS worker said. "The people who are not essential
are thinking about how they can make an argument (that) the
people who made the decision missed something, and they're
While some furloughed workers said they were going to treat
the time off as a vacation - planning to hit the gym and yoga
classes, or work on writing and other hobbies - the financial
concerns weighed on many.
"The immediate impact is just frugality on our part," said
Daniel Kuehn, a doctoral student at American University whose
wife is furloughed after being also hit by the sequester and not
receiving a raise in three years.
"We've been good savers all along, but the long term impact
of inaction in Congress is the bigger deal for us. We are very
conscious of trying to save money," he said.
Washington kicked into gear to support the troubled workers
as "shutdown hoedown" parties and all-day happy hour offers
sprang up around the city. One yoga center offered $10 discounts
for government ID holders and one suburban restaurant decided to
charge members of Congress double for coffee, while offering
free cups to government workers.
Whether furloughed employees would eventually get paid
remained unclear. House members from Maryland and Virginia said
on Tuesday 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.
If employees do not get paid, at least one administration
official said he would reduce his own salary. U.S. Attorney
General Eric Holder said at an unrelated press briefing on
Monday that he would take a pay cut equivalent to the largest
any employee at the Justice Department faced.
Similarly, Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who helped spur the
shutdown by urging his party leaders to demand delays to the
rollout of Obama's healthcare as part of the budget agreement,
said on Monday he planned to donate his salary to charity for
each day of the shutdown.
"Elected leaders should not be treated better than the
American people," he said in a statement.
(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici, Patrick Temple-West, Deborah
Charles, Jim Bourg, Margaret Chadbourn and Aruna Viswanatha in
Washington; Verna Gates in Birmingham, Alabama; Writing by Alina
Selyukh; Editing by Karey Van Hall and Jim Loney)