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U.S. government workers feel sting of being 'non-essential'

A worker arrives at the Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday morning after the federal government was shutdown when the House and Sena
A worker arrives at the Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday morning after the federal government was shutdown when the House and Sena

By Alina Selyukh

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government shutdown has divided hundreds of thousands of workers into those classified as critically important and others seen as less so, bruising egos and leaving many grappling with the financial toll of unpaid leave.

"I'm heading in to be non-essential," said one Environmental Protection Agency worker on the metro transit system on Tuesday as she joined many others going to work just to cancel meetings, lock up files and set out-of-office messages on email and voice mail.

The U.S. government shut down for the first time in 17 years after Congress failed to agree on a budget, splitting federal workers into a painful pecking order of "essential" employees who have to keep working and "non-essential" workers sent on unpaid leave.

Some 800,000 to 1 million federal employees nationally are expected to be furloughed because of the shutdown. They will be required to suspend work-related activity, including checking email or using work-issued phones and laptops, until lawmakers break the political stalemate and pass a spending bill.

It's unclear how long that will last and how many employees will receive retroactive paychecks.

"All of us were told not to report to work. We can't even report to campus to water our plants," said Suzanne Kerba, a health communications specialist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Pinning the "preventable" shutdown on Republicans, President Barack Obama wrote to federal workers on Tuesday, saying they do valued work "in a political climate that, too often in recent years, has treated you like a punching bag.

Obama and his fellow Democrats have rejected Republican efforts to use the funding impasse as leverage to change the president's signature healthcare law, known as "Obamacare."

Federal employees whose work has been labeled not essential have been hit hard as political dysfunction repeatedly stifles negotiations between Democrats, who control the Senate, and Republicans, who lead the House of Representatives.

Many offices have had long-standing freezes on hiring new staff and have not been able to offer raises to keep up with the growing cost of living for several years, workers say.

For many employees, Tuesday's furloughs are the second time this year they have been sent home without pay. The first furloughs resulted from across-the-board government spending cuts known as the "sequester," also prompted by disagreements in Congress over federal spending.

"As a government employee, I feel like a scapegoat and a pawn in a political game. And I sort of feel like government workers are chopped liver," said Ken Carroll, director of the Fair Housing Assistance Program Division at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, who was furloughed for several days earlier this year.

'NON-EXCEPTED' = NOT EXCEPTIONAL?

The divide of employees along "essential" and "non-essential" lines added to the hurt even as the officials started to use the gentler terms of "excepted" and "non-excepted."

"I recognize how hurtful the label 'non-excepted' can be - all those who work at NIH are exceptional!" National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins wrote in a note to his workers on Tuesday, seeking to boost morale as he confirmed that the majority of NIH workers would be furloughed.

Most government agencies similarly sent the majority of their workers home on Tuesday, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Internal Revenue Service and NASA.

Federal employees described confusing and sometimes messy rollouts of notifications over the past few days of who was and was not essential - with some employees trying to argue their work's importance was underestimated.

Washington kicked into gear to support the troubled workers as "shutdown hoedown" parties, and all-day happy hour offers sprang up around the city.

Yoga, pilates and martial arts studios offered free or discounted classes, while shops and restaurants gave out free food and snacks. One suburban restaurant even said it would charge members of Congress double for coffee, while offering free cups to government workers.

FEELING THE FINANCIAL PAIN

While some furloughed workers said they were going to treat the time off as a vacation - planning to hit the gym, catch up on house chores or devote more time to hobbies - financial concerns weighed on many.

"The furlough will hit home," said Michael Bloom, an adviser on sustainability and green buildings at the General Services Administration in Chicago, who is the main earner in a family of four. "We are OK if the shutdown lasts a couple days, but if it lasts two weeks, that missing paycheck is a mortgage payment."

Maria Njoku, a furloughed administrative worker at the Pentagon, said she was still recovering financially from her earlier unpaid leave this year and was planning to reschedule her upcoming mobile phone and cable TV payments.

Labor unions that represent federal employees excoriated lawmakers on Tuesday for allowing the shutdown to occur, urging Congress to approve legislation to ensure that furloughed federal workers are eventually compensated.

Non-essential workers received back pay after the 1995-1996 government shutdown.

"We appeal to House leadership to put an end to this dangerous circus," Laborers International Union of North America President Terry O'Sullivan said. "And Congress must then make the federal employees who have been victims whole by providing full back pay."

(Additional reporting by Diane Bartz, Patrick Temple-West, Deborah Charles, Margaret Chadbourn, Amanda Becker and Phil Stewart in Washington; Verna Gates in Birmingham, Alabama; Jane Sutton in Miami; Brendan O'Brien in Chicago; Writing by Alina Selyukh; Editing by Karey Van Hall and Peter Cooney)

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