You're nonessential -- get used to it Furloughed federal workers have bruised budgets, egos: THE GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN

November 18, 1995|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Sun staff writers Michael James and Kerry A. White contributed to this article.

Day Four in the partial shutdown of the federal government. Nerves are frayed. Egos are fragile. Morale is low. Paychecks are nonexistent. Humor is essential.

"My mother disputes that I'm essential in any way," deadpans Paul Hazlehurst, a lawyer in the Federal Public Defender's Office in Baltimore.

Only kidding, Mom.

At the public defender's office, lawyers and nonlawyers were busy at work yesterday. They represent defendants charged with federal crimes who can't afford a lawyer. Theirs is among the few federal agencies not furloughed.

"As long as people are getting locked up, we'll continue to work," says chief investigator Joseph Segretti.

As some federal workers at the Social Security and Veterans administrations prepare to return to work Monday, the debate surrounding the E-word rages on.

"We hate that word, essential," said Magda Lynn Seymour, a spokeswoman for the 700,000-member American Federation of Government Employees. "We know all government workers are essential. If they weren't, they would have been downsized already."

If the shutdown is shrinking federal spending, it's also deflating federal egos.

"If you're furloughed it adds a whole new dimension, being called nonessential," says Charles Traber, a budget analyst at the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn.

Dr. Peggy McCardle is one of the nonessentials -- at least in furlough parlance. She's home in Columbia, waiting for word on when she can get return to work. Dr. McCardle works in the Division of Research Grants at the National Institutes of Health in Rockville.

"My big concern is nobody has even mentioned biomedical research as a priority," says Dr. McCardle. "Is funding biomedical research to improve the health of the nation essential or not?"

"They talk about closing the Grand Canyon. They've already closed the NIH," she says in exasperation. "I don't understand why they can't pass a continuing resolution to let all of us do our jobs while they sit down and fight this out."

What's essential varies from agency to agency.

The Agency for International Development couldn't decide whether John Norris was essential or not.

"I was out for two days, and then called back for two," says Mr. Norris, a staff writer for USAID's legislative office. "It's pretty silly. People who will ultimately get paid for working are told to stay out of the office."

Joyce Finlay is a space planner for the General Services Administration. The only person deemed "essential" in her division was a structural engineer.

"He'll be there in case the buildings come tumbling down," says Ms. Finlay, of Arlington.

"Republicans have been circulating a very unattractive joke that says, 'If all these workers aren't essential, maybe we can go without them permanently,' " says Ms. Finlay. "But the government isn't operational -- there is no work getting done."

She said a better term for the "essentials" would be "emergency employees."

Actually, the guidelines developed to interpret federal furloughs don't refer to workers as essential or nonessential. Government workers are either "excepted" or "non-excepted" from the law governing the shutdown. And the rule of thumb generally has been that "excepted" workers are those involved in "the safety of human life or the protection of property."

"To use the term essential has connotations that are very unfair," says Lawrance Haas, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget. "The president fully recognizes that while we have reduced positions in government, about 200,000, one of the reasons we're able to do that is the workers on the job are doing a good job."

Ms. Seymour, of the federal workers union, understands how her members feel if they've been designated "nonessential."

"It's hard not to take it personally when you've dedicated your life to your job," she says.

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