Whiplash for Federal Workers: Go Home! Wait! Come Back!

“I blame everybody,” said Billy Young, a federal correctional officer in Texas.

Many workers still had fresh memories of the 16-day government shutdown in 2013, and recalled having to plead with creditors and decide which bills to pay. While this shutdown lasted just three days — and only one workday for many — some federal workers said it had further frayed their faith in Congress, and made them second-guess the careers they had chosen.

“I’m a die-hard civil servant,” Mr. Young said. “The reason I got this job was for the stability, and for the past several years we haven’t had it.”

Uncertainties still loomed. Some furloughed workers said they still did not know when they would be going back to work. Some who had kept working because their jobs were deemed to be essential said they did not know whether they would get back pay for the time they had worked.

And in interviews, federal workers said they were worried they would find themselves back in the same position on Feb. 8, when the latest temporary compromise to fund the government expires.

“I’m not holding my breath,” said Paul M. Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, a labor union that represents 20,000 members, including 14,000 air traffic controllers. “You know and I know: Congress is not going to start working well tomorrow.”

Federal workers said that the shutdown had loomed like a storm cloud over their lives for the past week, and that the protracted process of shutting down and reopening their offices, sending workers home and recalling them, was a waste of time and money.


A notice at the information booth at the Lincoln Memorial on Monday. Monuments remained open but were not fully staffed.

Pete Marovich for The New York Times

On Monday, union officials at military bases in Colorado Springs, Colo., and Ogden, Utah, said that civilian employees had to report to work and wait around for agency meetings just to determine whether they would be working that day or going home.

Mr. Rinaldi said that every day the Federal Aviation Administration spends handling a shutdown hurts the agency’s ability to operate.

“You can’t do any long-term planning,” he said. “They’re all focused on shutdown procedures. Today, you have a whole F.A.A. that’s not working on anything that is modernizing our system. They’re all working on who’s exempt, who’s not exempt.”

While air traffic controllers, the military and law-enforcement agents all kept working, so, too, did thousands of everyday civilians like Celia Healy, who works for AmeriCorps in Indianapolis.

She said she was told to come to work on Monday, though she would not be paid. At lunch, she ducked out of the office to watch the news from Washington and eat the rice and lentils she had prepared to tide her over until her paychecks resumed.

One of the ironies of dysfunctional politics is that the government actually seemed to be getting better at shutting itself down, said Tom Heutte, a program manager at the Tongass National Forest in Ketchikan, Alaska.

On Monday, the employees in his Forest Service office showed up to work, and Mr. Heutte said they all followed instructions to conduct an “orderly shutdown.” They read a four-page document, signed a furlough order and were then told to go home and not do any work, Mr. Heutte said. The process took about an hour.

“Everybody knew what the drill was,” he said. “These things kind of dump on our morale.”

At NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, David Draper’s workweek of running an office that studies moon rocks, meteorites and other extraterrestrial collections began with a far more earthbound subject: an all-hands meeting where employees were advised of furlough rules.

He said he and other employees were told to turn their cellphones off, not check work emails and go to a website — the same one used during Hurricane Harvey — to find out when work will resume.

“We are very used to operating at the whims of Congress,” said Mr. Draper, 57.

He spent about four hours at the office winding things down. He told an investigator who had been traveling to come back. He made sure the office’s state-of-the-art analytical instruments could “survive a few days of no one being there.” Mr. Draper went home, frustrated.

But the ups and downs weren’t enough to make him quit — not yet. “None of us gets into science for the money,” he said. “We do it just because we’re totally driven to do it.”

“Even when things are as frustrating as they ever get, like now, I still love going to work every day,” he went on. “I still can’t wait to do the things I get to do.”

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