The life and struggles of a government employee during a government shutdown

The life and struggles of a government employee during a government shutdown

“I had the best powder day of my life so that was fine”

PoliticsJanuary 14, 2019 By Will Brendza

For many government employees, when the government shut down just after Christmas, panic began to settle in. Dark clouds full of bills and rent notices, grocery lists and gas prices began to loom overhead like some kind of terrible storm, and a countdown began.

This, however, was not the case for Evan Buzbee. In fact, up until this last week, for Buzbee, who works as a contractor for the BLM at the National Operations Center in Denver, this shutdown had been a pretty laid-back ordeal.

At least, that’s how it seemed at first.

“Luckily I don't live paycheck to paycheck. So, I don't have any horror stories about not being able to feed my kids or pay rent,” Buzbee says. “Honestly I was going to take that whole week after Christmas off anyways so I was already planning to use my PTO time for that.”

It was well timed, if nothing else. And, luckily, Buzbee had about a week’s worth of paid time off (PTO) locked and loaded when the gears of our democracy started jamming up. Of course, there was no way for him to know that this petty squabble over Trump’s wall would result in the longest government shutdown in American history, that he would be out of work for four weeks (and counting). But, then, no one really expected that.

At first it felt like a vacation.

“The week of New Year's I went to Wolf Creek on New Year's Day and I had the best powder day of my life, so that was fine,” He says. “Then I just kind of chilled, I don't know. I was a housewife basically — I did laundry, I cleaned the apartment, I ran errands,” he chuckles. “I mean, I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't Enjoying it.”

But he’s also acutely aware that this hasn’t been the experience for everyone who holds a government job. Many of his co-workers have had to start driving for Lyft, and Buzbee himself is even looking into using dog walking apps to scrape up a little side cash to make up for lost income. 

Which, truly is lost. Unlike actual federal employees, who are “furloughed” right now, and will get compensated once the government opens back up, contractors like Buzbee don’t get paid for these lost days. They’re simply out of work and out of luck.

“People don't usually know that a ton of the federal workforce is made up of contractors,” he says. The feds pay his company to pay him, essentially. “I get my health benefits and 401-K and insurance, all that stuff through my company, not from the federal government.”

It’s a clever way to save face. By contracting employees like Buzbee, the government doesn’t have to pick up the tab for all those people’s benefits. And in the event of a shutdown, they don’t have to pay them anything for the days they don’t work.

“That's a misleading part of how the news reports this, because every day they’re like ‘Trump is keeping 800,000 workers or whatever on furlough,” Buzbee says. “And that's true. But, actually the amount of people not working is a lot higher than that because, all the contractors that work in government offices are also not working.”

And for what? To fund a wall that’s going to cost billions, that’s going to be a logistic nightmare to build and that won’t even stop illegal immigration? How can our representatives, be them democrats or republicans, allow Donald Trump to throw such a hissy fit at the expense of so many?

Because, simply, this shutdown isn’t really about the wall at all. This shutdown is about the 2020 presidential election, as Buzbee points out. It’s all about which party is going to have the upper hand when the dust settles here.

“It's gone way past the budget and past the ethics of even having a wall or the practicality of it. All of this is just political posturing at this point,” he says. With the end of Trump’s term looming on the horizon, his greatest promise, the platform upon which he ran in 2016, to “build a wall and make Mexico pay for it,” is coming back to haunt him.

This shutdown is the lynchpin to his chances for re-election. If Trump gets the Dems to cave and give him his wall money, he’ll look like a hero (even though Mexico was supposed to pay for this, not the American taxpayers). He’ll run his re-election campaign touting this victory as proof that his presidency was a productive one — that he follows through on his promises.

On the other hand, if he “loses,” if the democrats hold out and deny him his funding, it will be an all but fatal blow to his chances in 2020. This was his biggest promise to the American people in 2016, and if he can’t follow through, he’ll likely struggle to get voters behind him in the same way.  

“Either way, somebody is going to look bad,” Buzbee says.

Whatever happens next will say a lot about what happens in the next election. Hopefully, whatever that is, happens quickly, though. Because for many individuals and companies, the walls are starting to close in.

Case and point: just last week, Buzbee was called into a rather sobering meeting. His employers got everyone together to lay it on the line — if this shutdown continues into February, they announced, they were going to have to start laying people off.

“That's when it got real,” He recalls. “It was like, ‘Oh. Shit.’”

Even still, Buzbee has maintained his positivity. He’s hopeful that the shutdown won’t last much longer once people start missing paydays (which started last Friday, January 11th). At this point, he just wants to move past all this, whatever the resolution may be.

“Honestly when it comes down to it, I'm just tired of hearing about the wall and all this stupid stuff,” he says. “Just figure it out, one way or another and let us move on with our lives. The average person doesn't even know or care what's actually going on.”

While all of this political posturing and presidential maneuvering carries forward, heaps of garbage are piling up in our national parks, construction projects remain halted, and TSA agents are starting to protest, calling in sick to work.

And yet the shutdown continues. Buzbee is still off. Still doing house chores, hanging out and (hopefully) getting some good days in on the hill. It’s a double-edged sword — one that federal employees might as well try and make the most of, before they start getting cut.