WASHINGTON -- Elizabeth Lytle has already forgone six days of work this year due to the automatic government cuts known as sequestration. The unpaid furlough days cost the Environmental Protection Agency employee from Illinois roughly $1,000, forcing her to tap her retirement funds in order to cover some needed dental work, she said.
Now, with members of Congress flirting with a government shutdown, the 55-year-old administrative assistant faces the very real possibility of more furlough days starting next week. With her husband out of work, Lytle is wondering what she'll tell their landlord and their utility companies if her office goes dark on Oct. 1.
"I wish they could live in my shoes," Lytle said of lawmakers on Capitol Hill. "Am I sick of listening to a bunch of blowhards who don't know what they're talking about? Yeah, I am…. I can't say, 'Sorry, we can't pay you rent this month because Congress shut us down.' It's ridiculous."
House Republicans have sent a bill to the Senate that ties government spending to the defunding of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. The Democratic-controlled Senate is all but certain to strip the provision from the legislation by Friday, leaving House GOP leadership to decide whether or not to force a government shutdown over the issue -- a scenario that would be more politically damaging to Republicans than to Democrats, according to polls.
Just like last year, federal workers find themselves at the mercy of Washington brinksmanship. What's more, they can expect to be caught in the middle of yet another political fight in just a few weeks, when Congress takes on raising the debt limit.
"UUUUUUUGH. I cannot believe that they're doing this. GET TO WORK CONGRESS. DO YOUR JOB," one Pentagon employee emailed The Huffington Post, requesting anonymity to gripe openly.
With the potential for a shutdown now cropping up every few months, many federal workers told HuffPost that a once-stable job has become saddled with uncertainty. Between sequestration furloughs and constant funding squabbles on the Hill, these workers said they have a hard time encouraging job seekers to consider government work in an era of Capitol Hill gridlock.
"I would never recommend working for the federal government right now, if anyone asked me. You don't know one day to the next what's going to be happening with your job," said Jenny Brown, a 50-year-old tax examiner with the Internal Revenue Service in Ogden, Utah.
Brown and her colleagues swallowed three furlough days earlier this year. As the local chapter president of the National Treasury Employees Union, Brown said the specter of shutdowns and further cutbacks have prompted co-workers to ask her if it's time to find another career.
Although she's now a 27-year veteran, Brown said she understands the anxiety; she recalled that during the last government shutdown, in 1995 and 1996, she left the office in tears, wondering how she'd support two young kids as a single mother missing her paycheck.
"[My colleagues] come into my office all the time and ask, 'What I should do? Should I leave the IRS?'" Brown said. "I love my job -- we all do. We don't want to leave, but there are people who are concerned about it."
A 30-year-old Defense Department employee in Maryland told The Huffington Post that not only is he no longer recommending government work to others, but since sequestration hit, he's been looking for another job in the private sector.
"My morale has been shot since this first fire drill happened in March. I've been looking for a new job since then ... The only reason to work for the government has been job security and the benefits. The benefit package isn't there, and lately the job security isn't there," he said, adding that since he was furloughed for six days, he has started paying the minimum on his credit card each month and has stopped contributing to his retirement fund.
After the last shutdown, Congress passed legislation that paid workers retroactively for furlough days. But this time around, workers say they don't expect lawmakers to be so magnanimous, especially given the political climate and the focus on debt reduction. Some government officials have even started to warn their employees not to expect to be compensated in case of a shutdown.
"The environment we're in now, I'm not so confident they'd want to pay us. It's not a friendly environment," said George Schlaffer, an IRS revenue agent in Baltimore. "I'm not a great prognosticator, but ... my confidence level on us getting those funds are very low."
"The morale right now is terrible," Schlaffer added.
"It's demoralizing," added an EPA employee in San Francisco, who requested anonymity to speak openly. She said she was working for the federal government during the shutdowns of 1995 and 1996, but that the current Congress was significantly more dysfunctional.
"It's absolutely worse," she said. "There's a radical element, and they're just telling blatant, blatant lies. We would look at what [then-House Speaker] Newt Gingrich's Congress was saying, and it wasn't as blatant. And I know I won't get back pay. I'm certain of that."
Civilian federal employees have now gone roughly three years without receiving their traditional cost-of-living raises. Although many employees can still get pay bumps through so-called step increases, the freeze has meant that many others are earning the same salary they earned a few years ago, and in some cases less, once higher health care contributions are factored in. After supporting earlier freezes, President Barack Obama told Congress last month that he wants federal workers to receive a 1 percent pay raise next year.
Only a couple of Republicans have so far said they would authorize back pay for workers in case of a shutdown.
"Historically, federal workers have always been given back pay after a government shutdown, and Dr. Burgess supports doing that again in the event of a shutdown this year," Bruce Harvie, communications director for Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), told The Huffington Post.
A spokesman for Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) said the congressman "believes that the federal government should stand by the commitment and dedication of federal employees and would support any effort that ensures these employees receive the full salary they have earned."
Christel Fonzo-Eberhard, a policy director at the Pentagon, has been finding it tougher and tougher to keep her staff optimistic. In July, she helped organize the "Federal Furlough Five-Mile Fun Run for Freedom," in which Pentagon employees jogged to raise awareness about the harm of sequestration.
"People are exhausted this year. I think people have just thrown up their hands, and there's a total sense of hopelessness," she said.
Fonzo-Eberhard said that sequestration was slightly easier for people to accept, because they believed it was for a short period of time, the furlough days were spread out over several weeks, and they still received 80 percent of their pay. But with more furloughs looming, people are less optimistic.
"It's just, like, a general depression, I think," she said, adding, "There's an allegiance to the flag, and all these ideals. But at some point, you still have to pay your bills."
Fonzo-Eberhard and some of her colleagues had planned to have an "End Of FY13 Dance Your Face Off" party on Sept. 28, but they scheduled it before there was talk of a possible shutdown. She said the party would go on, since workers probably need some fun more than ever.