“Here’s some advice for a newbie like yourself to Federal civil service: save for the worst-case scenario. We’ve been under a continuing resolution for almost a year and I don’t think Congress is going to have a budget anytime soon. I don’t know your financial situation and it’s none of my business but prepare yourself for shutdowns just in case ” – Tierney Nelson
Back when I worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, my budget analyst offered me the advice in the epigraph during my first meeting with him. At the time, I was very naïve as to the effect of government shutdowns because all of the shutdowns I had been part of were during my time in the military…and active-duty servicemembers are exempt from shutdowns. Now that I had crossed over to the Federal civil service, I stood to be affected. That was the case back in December when the 115th U.S. Congress—and subsequently, the 116th Congress—couldn’t reach a deal with the President on a continuing resolution after failing to get a budget passed, leading to a shutdown of the Federal Government. The shutdown started at 12:01am on December 22, 2018, and lasted all the way up until January 25, 2019…a total of 5 weeks. Just under 1 million Federal employees were furloughed as a result.
The shutdown was very contentious for 2 reasons: (1) it occurred during a changeover from a Republican-dominated 115th Congress to a split 116th Congress, in which Nancy Pelosi became Speaker of the House after the Democrats regained the House of Representatives in last years midterm elections and (2) the media’s sensationalized embellishment of the shutdown.
There was so much fighting between the President and the combination of Speaker Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in the days leading up to the shutdown. There was even a very heated Oval Office argument that made for great television because it showed a clearly frustrated President Trump not caving in on his position regarding the security of the southern border and the Democratic Party leaders’ contention to keep the status quo, per se. It only got uglier when Pelosi ascended back to the top of the pyramid in the House and the new progressive Democrats got sworn in last month.
On the media side of things, Fox News and CNN, and NBC News made a mockery of this shutdown with their extremely biased coverage. The stories they let make it to the air were incredibly embellished. They literally had stories that may affect a couple of hundred people running as if it affected the entire 800000 Federal workers. There was actually one story, in particular, that NBC News ran on January 13th that pissed me off because of the bulls*** in it. Some chick named who works for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service named Mallory Lorge got on national television and said that she had to start rationing out her medication and ignore rising blood sugar levels because she couldn’t afford her co-pay on account of the government shutdown. The story goes on to say that she and her husband had to consolidate their debt into a $40000 loan and cancel all of her medical appointments because she isn’t receiving a paycheck. Lorge works for Fish & Wildlife, which falls under the U.S. Department of the Interior. Guess who also works for the U.S. Department of the Interior? Yours truly as of July 2016. I had a huge problem with Lorge telling a national news agency a straight-up lie that she hasn’t been paid…and then going on primetime national television with Anderson Cooper and restating this obvious bulls***. The truth of the matter is that the shutdown started on the same day Pay Period 27 ended. Pay Period 27 covered all work done between December 9-22. Time and attendance, at least at the Interior agencies, is usually certified on Mondays and pay goes out between the ensuing Friday and the following Thursday. A funny thing happened though: President Trump made Christmas Eve—a Monday last year—a holiday for all Federal employees so that meant that all time had to be certified on Friday, December 21st and had to include the time for December 22nd, if necessary for Saturday workers. Budget did their thing and every Interior employee was paid between December 28th and January 3rd. I was paid on December 31st, by the way. Pay Period 1 of 2019 ran from December 23-January 5 with pay to be dispersed January 11-17. At the time Lorge went on her media circuit, no Interior employee had missed a paycheck. She got her paycheck from 2018 Pay Period 27 just like every other Interior employee. I found it hard to understand why she and her husband would cancel all of the medical appointments and consolidate into a $40000 loan just because she received a $0.00 earnings and leave statement just like the rest of us for 2019 Pay Period 1. It felt like she and her husband were struggling long before the shutdown started and decided to use it as an excuse to get national sympathy. As for those co-pays she supposedly couldn’t afford, the insurance companies could’ve worked with her on that as could the hospitals and medical practices if she asked. All I know is that nobody is consolidating all of their stuff into a $40000 loan just because your paycheck—which Congress stated would be paid in full upon reopening of the government—was late by a couple of days at the time of the story. The fact that millions of Americans ate up that sensationalism is sad.
Apart from the White House-Capitol Hill fighting and the media’s bulls***, there were some other dynamics to the shutdown for me. I had to come in and work for a couple of days to cover some important stuff as we continued with some emergency operations at the Main Interior Building. My son got really sick and spent a couple of weeks in the pediatric intensive care unit at Children’s Hospital. I just got the bill for that and let’s just say that I’m very happy with my health insurance provider for both the benefits they offer and their understanding of the livelihoods of Federal employees in instances such as a government shutdown. I got to spend more time at home with my wife and son and it didn’t cost me any of the annual leave I would’ve been using at the end of last year to escape the use or lose provisions. With the shutdown, all of my contracts were postponed—or in the case of the refuse contract, significantly reduced. As a Contracting Officer’s Representative, I didn’t have to worry about processing any of the paperwork or doing quality assurance checks or enforcing statements of work or even writing statements of work for 5 weeks. That stuff literally takes up ½ of my workday every day. As I indicated, I still got paid: my regular pay a week after the shutdown began and, just like everybody else, a colossal paycheck a few days after it ended.
The shutdown quieted Washington for a few weeks, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Traffic was decent for a minute. All of the museums were closed so I missed out on a couple of opportunities to use my AWS Monday to tour the Smithsonian museums. But, at the end of the day, I was largely unaffected. I got a $0.00 earnings and leave statement for Pay Period 1 and that’s it. I was unaffected by that though because I was prepared. Back when I was living in low-cost Opelika as a GS-11, I had a chance to build an incredible emergency fund…really fast because of the per diem I earned from being on the road almost 3 weeks a month. As my wife can attest, very few people are as fiercely disciplined and specific about finances as me. I took Tierney’s advice from August 2013 and prepared myself for a shutdown. So news agencies were reportedly showing Federal workers in soup lines and starting GoFundMe fundraisers to fill in the gaps of the missed paycheck, I was OK. My family and I carried on as we always have. I feel very fortunate to have been in a situation where I was ready for a worst-case scenario. I think that this shutdown has probably exposed the limiting factors for a lot of Federal workers…that they aren’t as financially secure as they think they are despite having mostly secure jobs. I think a lot of them will be assessing their lifestyles in preparation for the next shutdown.
EDITOR NOTE: This post was originally written on 2/26/2019 during my 16-month hiatus from The Book of Juan.