Furloughed workers pinching pennies, volunteering

Sunday - 10/13/2013, 8:00am EDT

Associated Press

They're experienced research engineers and park rangers still in college, attorneys who enforce environmental regulations and former soldiers who took civilian jobs with the military after coming home from war.

And all of them have one thing in common: They were sent home on unpaid furlough last week after a political standoff between the president and Congress forced a partial shutdown of the federal government. More than 800,000 federal workers were affected at first, though the Pentagon has since recalled most of its idled 350,000 employees.

What these sidelined government employees are doing with their spare time varies as widely as the jobs they perform. Some are tightening their budgets at home, watching what they spend on food and other necessities, fearing it could be weeks before they earn another paycheck. Others are having a tough time keeping their workplace projects shelved and agency emails unread.

While Congress and the White House work on a deal to ensure furloughed workers receive back pay once the shutdown ends, some expenses can't be put off, whether it's replacing a broken furnace for $6,500 or buying diapers for a baby due before the month ends.

Here are the stories of just a few government workers directly affected by the shutdown.


As the government shutdown began its second week, Donna Cebrat was focused on stretching each dollar of her savings under the assumption she might not be able to return to work for a month or longer.

"Instead of having a dinner, I'll have a bowl of cereal. Maybe for dinner and lunch. Or maybe I'll go down to McDonald's for a hamburger off the dollar menu," said Cebrat, 46, who works for the FBI at its office in Savannah, Ga. "Lots of budget cuts. Not that I was living extravagantly before."

Cebrat makes her living processing requests for public access to FBI records made under the Freedom of Information Act. She lives alone in a middle-class suburb and estimates the money in her savings account could last her anywhere from two to six months.

She checks headlines for any news on negotiations between the president and Congress, but said she avoids reading full stories or watching shutdown reports on TV that would only bring her down further.

"I don't need to see the name-calling," Cebrat said. "I just need to see the headline."

Otherwise Cebrat has spent her days sanding and repainting her bathroom walls -- a new tub, toilet and vanity will have to wait until next year -- and taking walks in her neighborhood. She's avoided trips to the mall or the movies.


Catherine Threat sat at the bar, typing a note to her friends on Facebook.

"How do I serve my country from this barstool in the only restaurant in this tiny town outside a training base that is mostly shut down?" she wrote.

The 40-year-old staff sergeant in the Army Reserve returned from Afghanistan in July, taking a civilian job at Fort McCoy in central Wisconsin.

Then, last week, she and most of her colleagues were furloughed -- a maddening existence for a woman who isn't used to sitting still for very long.

So she headed to Chicago to help fellow veterans patrol the streets to help keep school children safe. It wasn't much different from the foot patrols she did during her three years in Afghanistan.

Foot patrols there created a presence, built bonds and deterred violence.

"That's what we're doing here, too," she said as she stood with other veterans outside an elementary school in a neighborhood that has had gang violence and other crime.

The assignment was short-lived. Threat was called back to Fort McCoy, along with hundreds of other civilian employees.

She didn't see the recall as a victory "because there are still a lot of people out of work" because of the shutdown.

But either way, she was grateful for the chance to serve in Chicago.

"Sometimes, I think this has almost been better for me. I've gotten more out of it than I'm contributing," she said, quietly monitoring children walking by her.

"But hopefully, I contributed something."


Jonathan Corso sat at his dining room table, the signs of a terrible week all around him.

At his feet, his family's beloved dog, Dixie. The sad-eyed, 14-year-old spaniel/mutt has terminal cancer and the day before had been given only about a month to live. Under his feet, the banging of workmen installing a new $6,500 furnace at his Decatur, Ga., bungalow after the old one broke.