(Corrects day to Tuesday instead of Monday in second paragraph)
By Alina Selyukh
WASHINGTON, Oct 1 (Reuters) - 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 “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?”
‘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 wrong.”
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)