WASHINGTON -- Chris Romine walked out of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History Tuesday morning with a furlough notice in his hand. For the 54-year-old gift shop employee, work would be off-limits until further notice. Even the bathroom inside had been closed off with tape, he said.
"The consensus in there was that most people didn't think it would come to this," Romine said on the sidewalk of Constitution Ave. NW. "But now that it has, they're worried it'll drag out a while."
Due to the government shutdown, all of the Smithsonian's museums and events are currently closed, just like the national parks and most federal offices. Tourists who showed up on the museum footsteps Tuesday morning were greeted by signs turning them away.
Any Smithsonian workers deemed non-essential have been furloughed without pay, a small slice of the estimated 800,000 federal workers currently on hiatus. Once Congress passes a funding bill, it may decide to retroactively pay workers for the time they've missed, but there's no guarantee lawmakers will be so generous. Furthermore, there's no indication of when Congress might strike a deal.
"To have this happen and not know if you're going to get paid, it's scary," said Romine, a Fredericksburg, Va., resident whose wife works in a bookshop. "I have a co-worker who, if she goes more than a week, I don't think she'll be able to cover her bills. And those people aren't being heard right now, in all the anger and the fighting. It's depressing, to be honest with you."
Romine said he was aware that members of Congress will be paid regardless of the shutdown, due to the fact that their salaries come from a pool of mandatory spending.
"That sucks," Romine said.
The workers leaving the Smithsonian Tuesday morning who spoke to HuffPost don't have lavish salaries. Their jobs are in retail and building maintenance. Many of them said a few days of missed work could force them to tap whatever savings they had. In the meantime, they would watch the news and wait to be called back to work.
For the maintenance crew, all but the most senior crew members were sent home, employees said.
D.C. resident Tenise Cruel, 50, said she's been on the job at the Smithsonian for 19 years. Thanks to her seniority, there was a chance Cruel might get called in to work this Sunday. And if someone else calls in sick, she'd be near the top of the list.
"Some people are living paycheck to paycheck," Cruel said. "I worry for the other people who've got bills to pay."
Cruel, too, was rankled by the fact that Congress doesn't have to worry about whether their own paychecks will come through.
"They should be furloughed like we are," Cruel said. "They'd hurry up and make a decision."
Kimberly Reynolds, 47, a colleague of Cruel's who was walking out with her own furlough notice, said she had no contingency plan if the shutdown drags on. She has no other income, and she doesn't have much in the way of savings. She said it would be easier to swallow if members of Congress had to feel the same financial uncertainty.
"Everyone should be in the same boat," she said.