One of my early jobs in the National Park Service was flying over the Mississippi River counting birds. I was required to take a “water ditching” class to learn how to survive a plane crash over water. What do you think the federal government recommends you do first, to increase your chances of survival by 50 percent?
You are to say to yourself in a positive tone, “I’m a survivor!”
That’s solid advice, advice that I use whenever life feels like it’s about to crash — for example, when the federal government unexpectedly shuts down. This is my fourth government shutdown in my federal career. The first three we could see coming, and we had a clear idea of how long they would last. The 2013 shutdown was so obviously broadcast that my federal credit union sent out emails the week before, advertising “great rates” on short-term loans.
Back then, I worked for government only part-time, and I nudged old editors and clients for writing gigs to fill out my lost income. When I finally landed my dream of working full-time at the National Park Service, I knew I should always stash a paycheck or two in savings should a shutdown ever occur again.
This time was different. The Thursday before, we were enjoying an all-staff tamale lunch meeting, marveling how our park visitation grew over the year. Then, mid-tamale, a colleague got a news alert. “You guys, the shutdown is on.”
We laughed, saying that he was behind the times. It all worked out; it wasn’t happening.
Then he showed us his phone. My superintendent looked grave. “I better go back to my office,” he said. “I bet there’s a conference call.”
The next day, shutdown preparations took precedence over any other work. I work Saturdays, and so I would be one of the first staff members furloughed. I scanned news reports and texted D.C. friends who had Congress’ pulse, who confirmed that there would not be any further votes. When I left work at 7 p.m. on Friday, I knew the next day I would begin the shutdown dance…
During a shutdown, you’re given four hours to get your affairs in order. You set your email auto-reply, park social media, website and voice mail to the federally mandated script and water your office plants. You lock up visitor facilities and place notices of the shutdown…
Some think that a government shutdown means federal employees get to party down with a paid holiday. But I’ve never taken a vacation under such maddening uncertainty. Leaving town is ill-advised; you could be called back to work suddenly. And since Congress has to vote on whether to give us back pay after the government reopens, there is no guarantee we will get compensated for this period. That limits the options for spur-of-the-moment road trips or even just going out with friends…
I’m a planner. I make plans so I can be spontaneous. Not knowing how much or if any money is coming leads to panic attacks at 2 a.m. followed by rage knitting. My gainfully employed husband and I are lucky that we have savings and a geriatric house rabbit as our biggest responsibility. There are people worried about falling behind on their rent or mortgages. There are parents hoping their kids will hold off on having major growth spurts so that they can put off purchasing bigger clothes. There are federal contractors who — regardless of whether Congress decides about paying federal employees — are effectively on forced unpaid leave…
None of us took our jobs to get rich. We are public servants, who love what we do. We are incredibly frustrated that we can’t do a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.
For now, while we wait for normal functions to resume, all we can do is tell ourselves in a positive tone: We are survivors.
Stiteler is a National Park Ranger for the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.