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.
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’s 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.
The next morning, I had my coffee, kissed my husband and said, “I’m off to shut down the government.”
Bewildered, he answered, “Good luck?”
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.
In my ranger job, I partner with other parks, nonprofits and volunteers for programming. I alerted these colleagues that we were closing and they would have to watch the news to figure out if our ice-fishing workshops or New Year’s Eve snowshoe hikes would happen. I couldn’t help promote upcoming events or even confirm if I would be present. Technically, I’m not even allowed to take a phone call from a partner who finds me at home and asks, “Hey, do you think you’ll be here this weekend, or should we find someone else?”
Not knowing when we’d see each other again, my co-workers and I had a farewell brunch after we completed our shutdown list. We tried to guess how long this would last and who would return with the most lustrous “shutdown beard” when it was over. By the time I came home, frustrated and sad, my husband declared it “pajama o’clock” and tried to comfort me with Jameson and “The Great British Baking Show.”
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.
For that matter, it limits what groceries you purchase. Do I go with the more expensive meat, from a cow that had a really fantastic life outdoors and then one really bad day? Or that “Five Buck Cluck” rotisserie chicken of uncertain origin, which could make at least two meals and soup stock? That money adds up, and I don’t want to put my electric bill on a credit card if I can help it. (We can apply for unemployment benefits, but have to return that money to the state if we get back pay, which leaves us teetering on yet another dilemma: Do we get what money we can, or will it turn out to be a massive overreaction and unnecessary hassle?)
I’m a planner. I make plans so I can be spontaneous.
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.
As tempting as it is to stay in my pajamas all day, feeling sorry for myself while nursing an old-fashioned and bingeing “Gilmore Girls,” I can’t do that. I keep my alarm set to the same time. I get dressed, I get in my 10,000 steps and figure out what I can do that day, even if it’s confronting the urgent crisis posed by all my mismatched socks. I try to find ways to contribute to my household as a useful member of society, though my husband might have a different assessment: He doesn’t find my reorganization of household electronics remotely useful and is angry I “hid” his VGA adapter and decided he didn’t need his “dad jeans” anymore.
My co-workers check in with each other via text, and on social media we share our methods for taming anxiety. For some it’s taking up breadmaking, or heading to the family cabin to find solace in nature. For others it’s putting together a challenging Lego gingerbread house set with their kids or attempting the insane art of diamond painting (which is like paint-by-number, but in 3-D, using thousands of plastic beads, and in this case culminating in a portrait of Jeff Goldblum lounging in a field with dinosaurs). We put up a brave front about not obsessively checking the news or reading comments from people who think that we’re reveling in sloth.
During a long shutdown, we try to get some face-to-face time. We find a cheap happy hour. We commiserate at a “We’re sorry you’re furloughed” party hosted at the home of the head of Mississippi Park Connection, the park friends’ group. And I’m more than happy to oblige when a co-worker asks if I’d take their kids out to see a snowy owl, in whatever part of the park might be open to the public.
A supervisor once told me, “You don’t get rich working for the federal government, but they treat you more than fair.”
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.
Sharon Stiteler is a National Park Ranger for the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. She writes as a private citizen, and is the author, most recently, of “Good Birders Still Don’t Wear White." Her work can be found at birdchick.com.