First-person: Furloughed federal employee in Denver: “I feel expendable this time.”

Joanne Grady, a furloughed federal worker, poses for a portrait on day 33 of the country's longest government shutdown. (Photo by Lena Novins-Montague for The Colorado Independent)

Joanne Grady, 49, is one of the 380,000 federal workers furloughed by the longest ongoing partial government shutdown in U.S. history. (Another 420,000 are working without pay.) She spoke to The Indy on the condition that we not identify her agency, citing department policy. Grady, who lives in unincorporated Jefferson County, has been unable to work since Dec. 21 and has not received a paycheck since Dec. 31. She discussed her experience with The Indy’s Lena Novins-Montague. This transcript of their conversation been edited for clarity and brevity.

“I told my mother when I was a small child that I wanted to be a scientist. In high school, I got to meet Jane Goodall because my honors program paid for me to go to a symposium on chimpanzee behavior at the Lincoln Park Zoo. I met Jane Goodall there, so I wanted to be like her. I went to Iowa State for my Bachelor’s degree in Fisheries and Wildlife Biology. Then I went down to Tennessee Tech, and got a Masters in Biology. I met my spouse there; he was also a wildlife student. [We] graduated at the same time. He got the first job and we moved to Missouri. I worked as a federal biologist on the Missouri River after the 1993 flood. Almost eight years ago, we moved here to Denver, and I got a promotion to a regional office. I have worked for the federal government for all of my grown-up, professional life, so it will be 25 years in July.

“I don’t know that the public knows the amount of time we spend in our agencies preparing for each potential shutdown. When you hear about [how] some people are furloughed and some people are essential, agencies have to prepare in advance for that. Supervisors have to come up with a list of what work is happening, what are the upcoming meetings, who are the people that are going to stay, who are the people that are going to go. [Before the shutdown], we had a series of staff meetings and phone calls, and then, because Dec. 24th and 25th were holidays, on the morning of the 26th, we had to report to the office. I turned in my laptop, I turned in my cell phone, we set our out-of-office messages on email and phone, we got a packet of information. This time has a much different flavor [than previous shutdowns].This time we got information about unemployment. We didn’t receive that in the previous shutdown.

“I filed for unemployment right away. I have yet to receive any funds. It’s my understanding that we have to pay the state back because we’re going to be getting back pay. Until they signed the bill last week saying that we could get back pay, we didn’t know that. That’s one of the hard things when people are like, ‘Oh, you’re on vacation, you’re going to get paid anyway.’ For those three weeks, we didn’t know we were going to get paid.

“We’re a single-income family. My husband is disabled, he’s not wheelchair bound, but he’s had a series of spinal surgeries over the past 20 years. So we can’t afford for me to not get paid. We did have some savings, which has helped quite a bit. We got some funds from my in-laws, they have a trust that is supposed to be my husband’s retirement money, so we’re tapping into my husband’s retirement money. We’re just really trying hard not to spend money.

“I’ve cancelled donations to my church and to PBS. It was a little embarrassing in the grocery store the other day with my daughter, who, at 9, can sometimes speak too loudly. She wanted a doughnut. We were only there for essential food. And she’s very loudly telling, ‘Ohh! Because the government is closed, we can’t have doughnuts.’ (Laughs). Other adults were turning to look. She’s right, there’s no doughnuts. When you’re nine, there’s no doughnuts, there’s no ice cream. My son, [a senior in high school], he’s got a job, so he gets it a little more. We’ve had more frank conversations about resources and money and where we are.

“[My husband] is not as stressed as I am about the financial situation. What’s distressing him is seeing my stress. He’d be fine going back into his trust, but I’m like, we still need that money for his retirement. It’s not free money, we’re relying on that money to pay for another part of our lives. He’s not as stressed as I am because it’s not just the money, it’s that the thing that I’m passionate about that I don’t get to do. Being held hostage day after day after day makes it hard to plan for things, for getting another job, or signing up to volunteer long-term.

“It’s a conflict of interest for me to go take another job in my field during this shutdown. It’s an ethics violation, because you can’t work for another organization that would do business with your federal agency. So with two degrees and 25 years experience in this field, I can’t go apply for a job in my field. There’s a lot of folks signing up to be Uber drivers. I’ve applied to a tutoring service and next up is to apply to be a substitute teacher.

“There’s some days where I’m not quite sure what to do with myself. There’s a lot of joking on the Facebook page among furloughed workers about how much Netflix people are watching and how much drinking people are doing, until that runs out. You do fill in the time a little bit. I’ve been going to a free watercolor class at church. I joined the church choir.

“It feels more threatening and much less secure than previous shutdowns. When you hear the President himself say disparaging things about federal employees, there’s no acknowledgement or respect for public service. Whatever the politics were, or who the presidents were, or whichever party had control of Congress, in the past, it felt like, while they were playing chicken with each other and it impacted us, they still respected what we did. And it doesn’t feel like that this time. There is not an urgency to get us back to work. There is not an urgency about the work that’s not getting done. I feel expendable this time, and I didn’t feel expendable in the past.”

5 COMMENTS

  1. Do NOT cross that picket line! Do not substitute for Denver Public Schools. I hope you can find another source of income including a go fund me site. I would contribute to that. Thanks and good luck!

    • I will not be crossing the Denver teachers picket line. Teachers are a corner stone of society and should be treated as such. It is inherently wrong to use one group of public servants to force concessions out of another group of public servants.

  2. Perhaps you ARE expendable. Now you know what it feels like to be in the private sector. Well, except that you have a pension…

  3. Kevin, there are a host of options for folks who lose their jobs because of a private sector CEO temper tantrum to the board, that are unavailable to federal workers about to miss their second paychecks.

    There’s no equivalency.

    But you do make me wonder if President* Trump’s shutdown is less about a quixotic wall for his base, and more about being anti-government. Well, at least anti-U.S. govt.

    Right, Comrade?

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