Government shutdown hits Alexandria

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Furloughed federal workers take part in one of fibre space’s free knitting lessons. (Photo credit: Cody Mello-Klein)
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By Cody Mello-Klein | cmelloklein@alextimes.com

Carolyn Bednarek sits at a table, her hands making small, sometimes stumbling movements with a ball of yarn and knitting needles. She isn’t the best knitter, but that’s why she’s here at fibre space: to learn. After being furloughed by the government on Dec. 22, leaving her without work or pay, Bednarek has plenty of time to learn.

Bednarek, a member of the Coast Guard, is one of the 12,831 Alexandrians who, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, work for the federal government.

Those federal workers comprise 8.5 percent of Alexandria’s population of 151,331, making Alexandria, by its proximity to D.C., harder hit than the rest of the state. According to a report released by the personal finance website WalletHub, the federal shutdown has affected Virginia’s workers the sixth most in the country.

Although this is a partial shutdown, more than 800,000 federal employees across nine departments and countless other agencies have been impacted. Around half of those employees have to work without pay. The rest, like Bednarek, have been forced to sit at home – left hoping they will eventually receive back pay – waiting for news of the federal government passing a budget resolution.

Federal agencies like the National Science Foundation are some of the biggest employers in Alexandria, and the city’s many federal employees are trying to figure out how to survive the shutdown without income.

For a lot of federal employees, rumors had been circulating that the partial shutdown was looming, but that didn’t make the actual government closure any less devastating, especially coming three days before Christmas.

“It wasn’t really that surprising,” Bednarek said of the moment she heard about the shutdown from her supervisor. “It was just really disheartening, especially around the holidays.”

Others didn’t hear about the shutdown until they saw it on the news while home for the holidays, as did furloughed government contractor Alyssa Marlow. This is Marlow’s third government shutdown, but she said frequency doesn’t make being furloughed any less frustrating.

“I’m angry, obviously. I think a lot of us are angry,” Marlow said. “We’re educated, professional, successful adults who serve our country, and we want to work.”

With no income for the past couple weeks and no promise of back pay, a lot of furloughed employees have had to find ways to stay afloat. Mortgages don’t stop just because the government is shut down. Marlow isn’t the only one cleaning out her closet, donating to Goodwill and selling her nice suits and shoes.

For some federal employees, the paychecks have stopped, but the work hasn’t.

“Since I work with active duty military, [some of them are] currently working and not getting paid,” Bednarek said. “They have to be in the office, and that includes people who were planning to take leave.”

For furloughed workers, emails and their unfinished projects are piling up, and when they do go back to work they could spend weeks getting caught up. Many furloughed federal employees are anxious and disheartened. While some are taking advantage of the time off to take care of home projects or to travel, others have nothing to do but sit at home and, as Marlow put it, “spiral into thoughts of self-pity.”

“I’ve always thought that the work I did was important and meaningful and that I was valuable,” Marlow said. “It doesn’t feel like it right now.”

Local businesses lend a helping hand

Despite the anxiety, inaction and lack of pay, there is a silver lining for Alexandria’s many furloughed and unpaid federal employees: local businesses are stepping up and pitching in to support those affected by the shutdown.

Restaurants such as Pork Barrel BBQ, Diya and Lavender Moon Cupcakes are offering free meals and discounts, while stores and organizations including knitting shop fibre space and The Art League are offering free lessons. For Alexandria’s local business owners, it’s a way to give back to the customers who have supported them over the years.

Pork Barrel BBQ, which is providing free pulled pork sandwiches to furloughed government workers for as long as the shutdown lasts, is among a number of local businesses that have offered specials to federal workers every time there’s been a shutdown, since at least 2013.

“It was kind of a way of us showing our customer base that we appreciate them,” Bill Blackburn, owner of Pork Barrel BBQ, said. “Every time this happens, federal employees get a raw deal. They become pawns in this big political game.”

Stores that don’t fill furloughed employees’ stomachs are offering to fill up something just as valuable: their time.

Fibre space is offering two free, volunteer-led knitting lessons a day as a way to bring in new knitters and provide anxious, out-of-work federal employees with a productive form of stress relief.

“We really just wanted to bring new people into the knitting community as a stress reliever, as a way for them to have a craft to keep them busy and find the soothing effects of knitting that we have,” fibre space owner Danielle Romanetti said.

Going from full-time employee to all-the-time-in-the-world is disorienting for a lot of federal workers. Knowing that there are productive – and free – ways to spend an afternoon is helpful for those afraid of going stir-crazy.

“This was the one exciting thing that I’ve come to do since the start of my furlough,” Bednarek, who attended one of fibre space’s free lessons, said. “Other than that, it’s just wondering when I’ll get back to work. It seemed relaxing and nice to be around other people in a similar situation.”

Although Alexandria’s local businesses continue to support their customers, the government shutdown doesn’t just affect federal workers. With a large amount of their customers suddenly without disposable income, business owners have to contend with serious issues of their own.

“The bigger issue is that our customer base is out of work and the government is shut down,” Blackburn said. “We just want to see it end like everyone else does because our economy is based on these people having an income and spending money and paying rent.”

Business owners like Blackburn, Romanetti and others have been through shutdowns before and know firsthand the impact they can have on the local economy and their day-to-day ability to run a business.

For fibre space, which relies on yarn being brought over from South America and Italy, the port closure is another problem slowly eating away at its ability to do business. And the economic effects of a shutdown can last for months after the government approves a resolution.

“[Customers’] ability to spend on food and shopping is lessened for many months until they recover from that,” Romanetti said. “We’ll have a ripple effect for many months in Alexandria. We definitely lost a lot of businesses in 2014. It only takes a couple months of drop in sales to really push somebody over the edge.”

But until the shutdown ends – or they close their doors – Alexandria’s local businesses are here to help as much as they can.

“It’s a $6 sandwich, so it’s not like we’re paying their mortgage for them, but I think people appreciate the gesture,” Blackburn said.

For people like Marlow, that gesture goes a long way. It’s a sign that federal employees are valuable and respected, a sign that Alexandria cares.

“The thought of being just one cog in a wheel and not being that important but that there are people that actually do realize the big picture and recognize the work that we do and treat us like human beings, it feels good,” Marlow said.

Visit Alexandria is collecting a list of deals available to furloughed employees at www.visitalexandriava.com/openforbusiness

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