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DC Businesses Provide Freebies for Furloughed Government Workers

The U.S. Government shutdown rolls on. Lawmakers have yet to reach common ground, and that means that nearly 800,000 government workers throughout the country stay home. Nowhere is the concentration of federal workers higher than in Washington, D.C. An entire city is packed with a newly-furloughed workforce, and some area businesses are chipping in.

One thing the shutdown has not done is close the doors of local businesses.

“We’re doing a free cup of regular coffee for any government worker that’s been affected by the shutdown, but in addition to that, we’re making members of Congress pay double,” said Zena Polin, an owner of The Daily Dish, a pizza restaurant in suburban Maryland. When she got word of the shutdown, she took to the Web [Internet] and announced free coffee. So far, the response has been good.

“I’m getting a free coffee because I am a federal employee who is not allowed to go to work today,” said Amy Henchey, who works for the IRS.

“On the one hand it feels a little bit like I’m playing hooky [skipping school]. On the other hand, I’m a little nervous about not getting a full paycheck,” said Jeri Buchholz, who works at NASA.

What Does a U.S. Government Shutdown Mean?

  • Large parts of the federal government need to be funded each year to operate
  • If Congress cannot agree on how to fund them, those parts of the government shut down
  • During a shutdown, federal workers are separated into excepted and non-excepted employees
  • Excepted must continue to work, and will be paid when Congress funds the government again
  • Non-excepted are furloughed and not guaranteed to receive back-pay
  • Parts of the government dealing with national security and public safety and those with independent funding like the Postal Service continue to operate
  • Other parts shut down, including National Parks, the EPA and the processing of visa and passport applications
  • The last government shutdown lasted 21 days and ended on January 6, 1996
There is no guarantee the furloughed workers will eventually get paid. That uncertainty motivated the owners of Washington’s Kangaroo Boxing Club [bar and restaurant] to offer free screwdrivers - the drink, not the tool.

“We decided that if the government was screwing [taking advantage of] you, you might as well get a free screwdriver,” said Christopher Powers at the Kangaroo Boxing Club.

“I came here because it seemed like a time to wallow in the furlough woes. I came to have a drink special,” said Renee Regan, who work at Smithsonian.

How The Shutdown is Affecting Services

  • About 800,000 federal workers furloughed
  • The military's 1.4 million active-duty personnel remain on duty, their paychecks delayed
  • NASA is furloughing almost all its employees
  • Air traffic controllers and screeners staying on the job
  • Federal courts continue to operate
  • Mail deliveries continue since U.S. Postal Service is not funded by tax dollars
  • Most Homeland Security employees continue to work
  • Most veterans' services continue because they are funded in advance
  • National Parks and Smithsonian museums closing
Despite the light mood on the first day of the shutdown, real concerns await the recently-out-of-work.

“In the back of my mind I know that I have to budget and try to figure out how much money I’m not going to be getting in my next paycheck,” said Elizabeth Bowers, who works for the Defense Department.

“It’s really going to hurt my rent check that is going to be late, very late,” said Regan.

Just a few blocks away is DC Reynolds. It's been offering a buy-one-get-one drink special since 11 this morning. Owner, Jeremy Gifford said, “These people live in the neighborhood. They support us 365 days a year, so the one day or two days - hopefully it’s not too long - that they are maybe a little bit tight on cash - figured we’d help them out.”

Even with free drinks, people here seem angry about the lack of Congressional leadership.

“I think it’s absolutely ridiculous. This Congress has, maybe - this is their most important job is to make sure they actually keep their funding going and they were unable to do that,” said Nicholas Werner, a government employee.

“It’s just extremely frustrating. It shouldn’t have come to this,” said Brian, who works for the IRS.

“The people that are in charge of funding the government - they’re still getting paid through all this. So, they’re just playing Ping-Pong and playing games with 800,000 jobs,” said Tia, a federal worker.

It’s only the beginning of the government shutdown. And no one knows for sure what’s next for Washington. But at least those who live here know they can count on each other.
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    Arash Arabasadi

    Arash Arabasadi is an award-winning multimedia journalist with a decade of experience shooting, producing, writing and editing. He has reported from conflicts in Iraq, Egypt, the Persian Gulf and Ukraine, as well as domestically in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland. Arash has also been a guest lecturer at Howard University, Hampton University, Georgetown University, and his alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife Ashley and their two dogs.