On Saturday, December 22, 2018, the United States government underwent a partial shutdown due to a lapse in appropriations, and V and I became two of the 800,000 federal employees furloughed without pay. This was my fourth furlough in 13+ years of federal service, but this one felt like it could potentially go on a lot longer than the others. Five weeks later, the longest shutdown in our nation’s history came to a temporary end with the passage of a continuing resolution, days before we planned to miss our second paycheck and our dental and vision plan (paid for through payroll withholdings) was about to start direct-billing me.
As I have said many times, I do not publicly discuss politics or comment on U.S. policy in my personal capacity. That is not going to change. There are a million people out there already doing that, and some even with considerable acumen. However, there are some takeaways I would like to share on the shutdown from my overseas perspective.
My Foreign Service colleague S. who blogs over at Towels Packed, Will Travel wrote an excellent post about the shutdown almost two weeks ago. Here’s how she started her overview:
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.
She goes on to put a human face on the stress caused to tax-paying federal employees, especially those where both spouses are furloughed without pay. I encourage you to read it. Although I don’t feel obligated to share every facet of my life here (and certainly haven’t), it was starting to also strike me at least odd, if not intellectually dishonest, that I have written four posts in January but not said much about the shutdown.
So now that the furlough is over (at least for the next three weeks, anyway…), here are a few thoughts.
Whether you were excepted or non-excepted, the furlough sucked. At the start of the furlough, like the rest of affected agencies, embassies had to make decisions about who was “excepted” (should keep working) and who was “non-excepted” (not allowed to work). (Sometimes these categories are also referred to as “essential” and “non-essential,” terms that really bug me.) Although no one was getting paid regardless of excepted vs. non-excepted status, many employees who weren’t allowed to work felt as though their work – work for which they have sacrificed by serving overseas – was no longer valued. They worried about money, watched a lot of news, and had too much free time on their hands.
Those who were obligated to come into work (or be deemed AWOL) ran the risk of burnout carrying the water on many jobs at once, while stewing about unpaid duty, and the free time away their non-excepted colleagues were getting which would later be paid and not cost them annual leave.
It did not feel fair to anyone. The climate of financial and professional uncertainty was a drain on everyone’s morale, especially as furloughed employees had to stand back from their life’s work, work that advances U.S. objectives and which we believe in deeply. It was also embarrassing in front of our Australian counterparts who are… puzzled by our inability to keep our government running.
There was another layer of suck for those posted overseas. Not only could diplomats posted overseas not take advantage of all the Washington-area freebies for furloughed feds, but most of us are not allowed to get a second job because of our diplomatic visa status. And frankly, many of us serve in countries where jobs on the local economy are a non-starter, and in developing countries, the embassy is likely to be the safest place (and have the best internet!). People with upcoming PCS moves and tuition for their kids due slowly started to panic.
Sadly, a surprising number of my FS colleagues overseas also reported that not a single person from home has reached out to see if they were furloughed or not, doing OK, or needing financial or moral support. Not friends, not siblings, not even parents. I know this hurt many officers deeply; many of us can begrudgingly deal with the majority of Americans we represent abroad being oblivious of the effects of the shutdown until suddenly they miss their tax refund check, or have to wait three hours in an airport security line to take a short domestic flight.
But to get no support or even queries from your own family while you’re furloughed for weeks with no pay, or worse – to be subjected to well-meaning lectures about money management and politics, or admonishments to not stress because you are “on vacation anyway” and can expect backpay is just… disappointing and hurtful. (Fortunately this was not my experience, but I heard it anecdotally from others dozens of times.)
Speaking of empathy… being furloughed from your job without pay for an indeterminate amount of time, especially while overseas and away from your support network of family and friends, is NOT a vacation. Period. Even if you go somewhere. The list of things I did not do or could not arrange during the financial uncertainty of the shutdown fills a whole page.
Holy financial realities, Batman. Do we really need another topic to be polarized on? Many Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and were barely making ends meet even before the shutdown. And apparently, many Americans who don’t live paycheck to paycheck are totally out of touch with financial reality and what it can mean for decent, hard-working, employed people to miss even one paycheck. And if the furlough didn’t make this clear, not everyone can call Bank of Dad when things go sideways.
I personally suffered no lasting negative impact to my financial position during the shutdown. Although my husband and I had obligations and needs that did not disappear when our employer did not pay us, including some we did not appreciate or anticipate, we were able to make do because I have worked for years to build strong finances with no debt and a healthy rainy day fund. But that is not the norm, or the point. The fact is, *everyone* has a financial breaking point, and everyone who depends on government services or is on the federal payroll deserves dignity. And keeping my whole lifestyle and scenario going, is based on, you know, my ability to WORK and support myself.
Regardless of one’s personal situation, furloughed workers need the pay and benefits that they earn, and the ability to take care of their families and meet the obligations one confidently takes on when employed. Some people are hustling as hard as they can, but still having a hard time keeping their heads above water. Some people were already in an unexpected emergency when the shutdown started, are taking care of ill relatives, or are recovering from debt or personal disasters. Do some people live beyond their means? Sure. Can some not be bothered to save a dime? Absolutely. But almost anyone would be “caught out” by the consequences of unemployment, eventually, so some of the online flaming I have seen is not helpful.
In some circles, generosity abounds. The news has been full of stories of the kindness of strangers towards furloughed feds. One thing you haven’t seen unless you are in the Foreign Service, though, are the heartwarming posts on our social media groups between diplomats helping each other. Officers with more resources collecting grocery lists from struggling officers and placing orders. Officers posting links and resources to spread information and bolster morale throughout the ranks. And in the last days, offers from stateside officers opening their homes to embassy families on ordered departure from Caracas, who may soon arrive in Washington with little money or support and kids, pets, and baggage in tow.
The furlough has not been fun. It has caused a lot of stress and unpleasantness, and it may happen again. We will be as ready as we can. V and I also decided to be intentional about doing some local travel, and I used Marie Kondo’s methods to clear out several bags of unwanted clothes from my dressers which I washed and folded lovingly for someone else to enjoy.
Besides our awesome trip to Sydney for NYE, in some of my “furlough free time” before I was made essential and called back in, I got to hang with a dear Sydney-based friend who I went to grad school with at Macquarie during her business trip to Canberra…
…visit Canberra’s walk-in aviary and the National Zoo…
…and get lots of exercise around the neighborhood, at whatever time of day I wanted!
V and I also took a Christmastime trip to Mollymook to do some swimming…
…I got new hair…
…and we went to Jervis Bay, one of my favorite places on the south coast.
In January, during times I was both excepted and non-excepted, I have worked on improving my health and resiliency. Here’s hoping for renewed prosperity, stability, and advancement for all of us in the coming months.