How things change in just two months: Thousands of government workers who were deemed “essential” during the government shutdown in September, when their paychecks were at risk, have now, in a dramatic reversal, been deemed nonessential while they enjoy a paid snow day off.
The government shutdown furloughed all federal employees but those deemed “essential,” or “excepted,” in bureaucrat-speak.
The distinction created envy towards essential workers by those deemed nonessential, who had to stay home without pay for weeks. They eventually got back pay, only days after their normal paychecks would have arrived.
In the District of Columbia, which was forced to follow the same standard because of its relationship with the federal government, Mayor Vincent Gray sought to avoid any employees having to be sidelined by arguing that every single one of the city's 33,000 employees was “essential to the protection of public safety, health, and property,” as he wrote to federal officials.
But on Tuesday, a District of Columbia spokeswoman told the Washington Examiner that virtually all D.C. employees were at home due to the snow that dusted the capital region.
“The government is closed; there’s almost no one here to speak with you. It’s just essential staff, basically just the police and things like that,” said Ebony in the District’s office of communications, who said she was not authorized to give her last name. “Only anyone who’s considered essential would be at work today.”
Asked about the arguments Gray and other public officials made, touting the importance of every worker and specifically making a legal determination about the term “essential,” Ebony said “it was just for that time period.”
“Maybe they just wanted to make sure everybody came to work. After that was over, it went back to what it normally is.”
Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro later added by email: “One reason the situations are different is that the shutdown was of an indeterminate length, since no one was sure [how] long it would go, all services were deemed essential.
"You can operate a city/state for a day or two without a DMV or a purchasing department, but you can't go two, three or more weeks without those types of things.”
But Jim Harper of the Cato Institute said it was all about saying what was necessary to keep the paychecks coming.
“The essential' worker designation is like the emergency' label Congress slaps on spending bills. It's to keep the money flowing. A snow day doesn't threaten paychecks, so October's essential' worker can stay home when there's bad weather in December,” Harper said.
If anyone should be able to make it to work in the snow, one might think it would be D.C. employees, who are based in a 10-mile-by-10-mile municipality with extensive mass transit.
The D.C. government regularly pressures private employees to hire “District residents,” who should be able to get to work in their own town, though the local government's high pay scales mean that many of its employees actually live in the Maryland suburbs.
At the federal level, the yuletide season snow conjures ghosts of shutdowns past, where lawmakers and public employee unions painted dire pictures of a nation collapsing without their diligent toiling, with images of the sky falling.
Now, snow is literally falling from the sky.
But the Office of Personnel Management's website has a simple message, and employees are at home, sleeping in or brewing hot chocolate:
“Operating status: CLOSED. Federal offices in the Washington, DC area area CLOSED. Emergency and telework-ready employees required to work must follow their agency's policies.”
The Examiner asked OPM how many employees are “emergency” and whether the standard was the same as during the shutdown, when 1.3 million civilian employees were deemed essential compared to only 800,000 non-essential employees.
OPM estimated that today, the ratio is reversed, with about one-third of the federal workforce in the DC area working, including emergency workers and those working from home or just logging in on mobile devices.