We all have these stories about our lives that we like to tell folks when the conversation bends in a certain direction. One of my stories comes from 23 years ago. It was late 1995, Congress and the President had hit an impasse on passing funding for the government. The government was shut down and folks were sent home. Well, almost everyone.
At that time, I was the manager heading up our customer service operations for the Health Care Financing Administration’s (now Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) office in Denver. My job but not my staff were deemed essential. That meant that I had to work while everyone else was furloughed.
It was a bit of a drag but I had been through this before. Budget negotiation failures and government shutdowns had become somewhat routine in the 1980s and 90s. Generally we were sent home for a day or two and then everyone came back to work and paid for the time they were out. Not this time though.
Of our 120 person staff, only 2 of us were on duty….the head of our office and myself. I was there to respond to any customer (we called them “beneficiaries”) who contacted our office on a Medicare matter. There were a few but not that many. It was the holidays and things were generally a bit slower. Most folks thought our office was closed anyway and did not bother contacting us if they had an inquiry anyway.
As days went by, there was no compromise and no budget. It took 21 days before a solution was reached. Those were some of the quietest days at work I ever experienced. I got a lot of those low priority projects that were always sitting around completed. You felt like the Maytag repairman from the commercials.
I have always liked telling people that I worked through the longest government shutdown in US history. Looks like my record is about to fall. As I write these words, we are 2 weeks into a shutdown that appears to have no end in sight. Republicans (Trump primarily) and Democrats are playing a game of chicken over funding for Trump’s fantasy wall. Government services and employees are caught in the middle.
I served the US Government for 33 years. I was proud of the work I accomplished and the hard working men and women that I served with. HCFA/CMS was filled with with some of the most dedicated people who cared about their role that I have ever known.
Of course, I always had to bear the jokes of people who had bought into the stereotype of the lazy government worker. There is this unfortunate misperception that folks who work for the government do so because they don’t know how to do anything else, that they get their jobs for life with no chance of being let go for poor performance, that they are simply taking some kind of “welfare” in the form of a job. Nothing could be further from the truth….but old cliques and false ideas die hard.
As we move through the current shutdown, let’s use the moment to rewrite the script about government workers and the jobs they do. Most government jobs are important and serve all of us. We, the people of the United States of America, are lucky to have those dedicated public servants in their roles providing critical services.
Not only is it time to end this shutdown and put these dedicated public servants back to work, it is time for all of us to take a moment and feel a deep sense of gratitude for the work they do each day. They are a gift to all of us.