Two extra midday commuter trains left D.C.’s Union Station this afternoon, shuttling federal employees deemed “non-essential” home to Virginia and Maryland.
A mass of people, many with government ID badges dangling around their necks, clustered below the MARC train schedule board. Some chatted quietly or munched on granola bars, briefcases at their feet. Most gazed trance-like at the screen, waiting for the orange LED “boarding” sign to flash on, indicating that they could get on their trains home.
John Schilp works at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. He says he went into work and got the paperwork required to file for unemployment, and the attitude in the office was notably dismal.
“We felt really bummed, kind of despondent and not knowing what’s going to happen next,” he said. “I mean, we’re statisticians — we we work on schedules and routines and stuff, and now they took it all away from us.”
Schilp says tomorrow he’ll winterize the rental home he owns and mow the lawn.
“I have stuff to do at home,” he said. “But by Friday, I won’t have anything else to do.”
People who were around during the last government shutdown say it feels like they’re in limbo — they can’t go to work, but they can’t go on vacation, either.
Pat Barnes has worked as a human resources officer at the Department of Labor for years. In 1995, during the last government shutdown, her job was considered essential.
“A lot of it was manual, so we had to send out notices and things of that sort. So I worked the entire three weeks. That was a blessing, I think,” she said. “I have a different position, but everything’s automated now, so there’s no need to actually have people there stuffing envelopes and sending notices and things like that.”
Barnes held onto to two rolls of shiny wrapping paper. Her granddaughter’s birthday is Friday. “I really want to go to Atlanta and see my granddaughter. But I have to send a package instead because I have to be here,” she said. “We may be called back tomorrow. Or next Monday or Tuesday. I don’t know.”
Nearby, Kirk Douglas chatted with a coworker in operations at the Smithsonian. He said he’s a disabled veteran who came home from infantry during Desert Storm with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I’m going to go home and make a sign,” said Douglas as he walked toward the train going to West Virginia. “It’ll say ‘Disabled veteran and government employee needs work and/or food.’ I’ll stand on the corner in Martinsburg with it.”
His friend Keith Keyes added, “Mine’s going to say ‘I need beer. Why lie?'” Douglas smoked a cigarette and ranted about Congress before boarding the train home.
Outside the train station, at the Irish Times pub, 10 Department of Labor employees sat enjoying a late lunch. There’s a vivid irony to their situation.
“We work in the agency that helps people find and keep jobs,” said Melissa Smith. Her coworker, Larry Smith, said this morning was tough. “I could see the emails coming in this morning from people asking for work, and benefits,” he said. “But we couldn’t respond. We weren’t allowed to.”
The shutdown could mean unemployment for hundreds of thousands of government workers. But for the moment, it’s late lunch, early trains home, and a heavy dose of gallows humor.
The shutdown kicked in at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday morning. Last time, it dragged on for 21 days.
(Rae Ellen Bichell is 2013 Kroc Fellow at NPR.)