Essential or nonessential — that is the existential question on the minds of federal workers in Washington.
As the government gets closer to the edge of a shutdown, agencies are deciding which government employees are deemed “essential” personnel, meaning they will be required to report to work even if Congress fails to act. Workers categorized as “nonessential,” meanwhile, are told to stay home.
Although the realization that their jobs are not mission-critical may be a blow to some workers’ self-esteem, it also means a forced, though possibly paid, vacation.
“I’d prefer to be employed without a break. I’d prefer to have a paycheck,” said Steve Bruno, a project officer at the Department of Energy.
He said he figures he will be deemed nonessential, though his department hadn’t informed him one way or the other as of Friday afternoon.
Mr. Bruno, who said he worried about the financial security of his family, said he would rather avoid an “end of fiscal year vacation.”
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Mike Yea, a Department of Health and Human Services employee, said he has been deemed nonessential and will not report to work if the government shuts down Tuesday.
He bristled at the idea that some government jobs are unimportant just because they are deemed nonessential.
“I think everyone’s essential,” Mr. Yea said. “We work in business management at the Department of Health and Human Services; we’re not practitioners.”
When asked whether he was essential or nonessential, he also corrected the lingo, saying he is “non-excepted.” The less-harsh term was used in a Sept. 17 memo from the Office of Management and Budget for those who are not excepted from a furlough. Those who are “excepted” will be exempt from the furlough.
“I think because so many employees felt that was a demeaning phrase to the work they do every day, they changed the terminology,” said Jessica Klement, legislative director for the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association.
Federal agencies have the power to designate their employees’ status in the event of a government shutdown. The last time Congress and President Obama stalemated, in 2011, the administration estimated that 800,000 of the 2.1 million employees in the federal workforce would be furloughed.
The public perception of an employee deemed nonessential, as well as the perception of Congress members who wondered about the need for those employees during the near-shutdown in 2011, is different from how federal employees see their jobs, Ms. Klement said.
“I personally feel like saying nonessential is kind of like if you go on vacation, we can find a way to make sure that work gets done if you take a weeklong vacation,” she said. “It’s not that your job isn’t important; it’s that while Congress is busy trying to get its act together, we can figure this out without that person there.”
Although most federal employees understand that their jobs are important even if they are not called to work, Ms. Klement said, being told that the company can survive without you is another blow to morale for workers already dealing with furloughs and a three-year pay freeze.
“It’s just cheap shot after shot after shot and now we’re going through a government shutdown over a law that was passed three years ago,” she said. “It’s gotten to the point where Congress continues to play politics without realizing the real effects this has.”
Some federal workers outside department buildings in Washington declined to answer questions about the looming shutdown Friday, saying they were not authorized to speak for the agency or did not know whether they would be reporting to work if the government shuts down.
Two young women said they were nonessential before bolting away, showing the sensitivity of the topic. After directing questions to his agency’s public affairs staff, a police officer shouted that he was essential.
One accountant for the Department of Education, who declined to provide his name, said he was deemed nonessential and that’s the way he likes it.
“I prefer to be nonessential. It’s what I’ve always been,” he said. “That’s the typical government worker answer.”
Iva Cramirc’s job as a TV producer for the government-owned news show “Voice of America” is essential, according to the government. When asked whether she was happy about that, she replied that she would be happier if the chance of a shutdown was taken off the table.
“I’d rather there not be a shutdown,” she said. “I’d rather [members of Congress] do their jobs so we don’t have to deal with it.”