The shutdown has ended. For now, the government is open, and America has not gone into default. Of course, the deal that was brokered only runs until January of 2014, so we might get to do this all over again in a few months. I was an essential government employee during this shutdown, and during the shutdown 17 years ago. In 1995, I was a private in the Army, and I don’t think I had the faintest idea what a shutdown was. I was living in the barracks, eating in the chow hall, and barely felt the impact. This time? I am excruciatingly aware of everything involved. And I can’t help but bristle at the things being said about government workers. Over the course of the shutdown, the focus has been on the non-essential employees who were furloughed. There is some idea that the people who have not been allowed to work for these last 2 weeks are unimportant. Because food safety, natural disasters, and other such threats to American health just aren’t that important. Neither are veteran’s educational benefits or Head Start programs. Oh wait, all of those things are important. So why were the employees of those agencies deemed non-essential?
The short answer is popularity politics. Some programs are better protected than others because people know what they do, and the employees in those programs are more likely to be deemed essential. That doesn’t mean that their work is any more important to the public good than the work of those employed by agencies that aren’t required to remain open. For that matter, even in agencies that have been partially open, workers that perform functions ranging from training new employees to interacting with the public about benefits have also been furloughed. That doesn’t mean those needs are unimportant, or that those functions won’t still need to be performed. Federal agencies are chronically understaffed, a workforce of nearly 2 million people serving a country with a population approaching 320 million. Every employee is necessary for the needs of the public to be met, even if the public has no idea what they do.
Essential employees have been working with only an assurance that they would eventually be paid, while furloughed workers (who will receive back pay) know that when they return to work they will be facing a mountain of tasks that will require extra hours in order to make up for this lost time. Government workers routinely put in extra hours as it is, but since most government positions are salaried, those hours are just folded into the existing pay scale. I don’t expect the average American to know these things. I didn’t know them before I went to work for the government. But politicians do know that these agencies are an integral part of keeping America running. Yet they pander to the idea that government employees are somehow separate from the average American worker.
Are the benefits better than some jobs in the private sector? Yes. But the pay scales are lower, the hours aren’t that great, and raises aren’t guaranteed. Just like anything else, there are perks and cons to government service. Despite what TV tells you, for the most, part government employees get up every day, go to work, do their jobs to the best of their abilities and go home. These are offices full of people who want to serve their country in ways beyond the military. I won’t claim that I’m some great patriot, neither are most of my coworkers. We’re just people. And the politicians who are (in theory) in a position to know what we do best seem to have forgotten that reality. So have many of our neighbors.
Essential, non-essential, the labels don’t matter as much as the facts. Did the partial shutdown of the U.S. government impact your life? Maybe it seemed like nothing much changed during those 16 days, or the changes were merely a mild inconvenience. But, if this happens again in January, you might feel it a little. And if the next shutdown isn’t partial but is instead total, I know that you’ll feel the loss. It won’t just be panda cams, parks, and politics. Take 2 million people completely out of the workforce, shut down all but the bare bones of the federal government, and see how long it takes for those inconveniences to become real problems. On the one hand I think it would instructive, on the other hand I have no desire to be stuck cleaning up that mess. I’m a government employee, I’m essential even when I hate my job, and I work very hard every day to take care of people like you. Remember that, the next time a politician tries to use basic services as a bargaining chip.