The Naval Air Station at Patuxent River, Md., sits in a peaceful spot where the Patuxent River adjoins the Chesapeake Bay. The first few days of October brought sunny, clear blue skies and temperatures in the low to mid 80s. Perfect fall weather to boost even the most subdued spirits.
Normally, on a day like today, the main route through St. Mary’s County would be heavy with traffic heading to the base, and the sky would be noisy with the “sounds of freedom.” But today’s commute is easy and, while a few flights are still taking off and landing, it’s uncharacteristically quiet overhead. The atmosphere on base is more subdued than usual. No one seems to have noticed the beautiful weather.
The federal government shutdown, which started Oct. 1, has brought the second furlough the community has experienced in the past five months. This summer, all base employees had to take six days of unpaid leave, amounting to a 20 percent cut in salary for those six weeks.
The impact of the current shutdown varies. Some government employees are still working because funding for their projects runs until Nov. 30. Others stopped coming to work Tuesday. While some blame one party or the other for the community’s hardships, others say they’re willing to suffer a little belt-tightening if it teaches the government to be more responsible with taxpayer money.
The Mixing Bowl Restaurant sits near the base and does good business at lunchtime. Owner Mike Ruisi said that starting at the beginning of this year’s second quarter, business dropped 40 percent overall, compared to 2012. In September, things began to turn around, but the future seems once again uncertain. Business has been good this week but is sure to decline if the furloughs continue. It’s the same story for small businesses all over the area.
“I have a partner and 10 employees,” Ruisi said. “If my partner and I can’t get along, can’t come to an agreement about how to run our business, not only will our business fail, but our employees won’t get a paycheck. Congress needs to remember why they are there.”
St. Mary’s County is home to about 30,000 military, civilian, and defense contractors—about 21 percent of the population. Those who don’t work on base commute to Washington, D.C., and other government offices in Maryland and Virginia. It’s not clear how many of them are included in the 800,000 government workers told to stay home during the shutdown. But a majority of the government’s 4.4 million employees continue to report to work as normal. Still, for those taking time off with no guarantee of their next paycheck, the congressional lack of action feels personal.
Michele Glampe, a single mom with a daughter in college, has worked for the government for 19 years. She has savings that will help pay her expenses for about four months, but she doesn’t want to use them for that. She needs a new roof and is committed to helping her daughter with college expenses. “It isn’t right that government workers are being furloughed when there are so many other areas where cuts in government spending can be made,” she said. “How are we able to give aid to countries like Egypt and Syria? [Secretary of State] John Kerry said we needed to help Egypt prop up their economy. What about our economy?”
Despite her personal hardship, Glampe wants Congress to delay Obamacare, especially since the legislation is unpopular, states don’t know how they will make it work, and the IRS doesn’t know how it will protect personal information. She finds it frustrating that the government shutdown is being presented as the only option: “Government employees aren’t the cause of the problem but are paying the price. [Congress] can’t do their job and we pay.”
David Smith has been a civil servant for seven years. He says the impact to his family is minimal for the moment: They are tightening their belts and putting off expenditures. But if the shutdown continues past three months, things will get difficult for them. In spite of the uncertainty and financial concerns, Smith is not entirely unhappy about the shutdown: “If this is what it takes to get Democrat politicians to wise up and rethink Obamacare and the size of government, then it is a price worth paying.” He does understand though that some people can’t afford the price and sympathizes with their situation.
Jennifer Chermansky has been working at the Patuxent River Base as a civil servant for 15 years. She and her husband Ed are both furloughed and are dealing with personal uncertainty as well as the fears and concerns of those they supervise. Jennifer says many of her coworkers have cash-flow issues, especially since this furlough comes on top of the one this summer. Some people already are looking for part-time jobs to fill the gap. The one-two punch has pummeled morale on base and in the community. Unlike those who want to blame one party or the other, Chermansky believes there’s plenty to share between Congress and the president. Both sides are playing political games and demonstrating a lack of leadership, she said: “They are stressing a lot of people’s lives because then can’t do their job and resolve issues.”
Mike Williamson is a retired Navy captain who has been working as a civilian for almost five years. He said he is unhappy about the unscheduled time off because he has work that needs to be done—the money issue is secondary. While many government employees are hoping that Congress will eventually pass legislation to pay them for the time off, which has happened after every other government shutdown, Williamson sees it as one more sign of Washington’s inefficiency: “I am not getting paid right now, but worse yet is that I might get back pay. What sense does that make? First they make me stay home and then they pay me for staying home. That makes absolutely no sense at all.”