What a strange way to mark my five-year anniversary of employment as a Foreign Service officer.
The partial government shutdown affects the State Department. That means that embassies and consulates have to cease “non-essential” operations. Of course, as with everything else in the real world, what exactly gets shut down is complicated. What we did not do is to send everyone home, lock the doors, and shut down the consulate. The Department’s activity is affected by budgets, of course, but national security and the safety of American citizens abroad have to be prioritized. In addition, different activities of the State Department are funded differently, so some sections can remain operational. Some people still go to work, and maintain essential operations, like security of the consulate buildings themselves. Most of us have been sent home, with instructions to monitor the media for news that the government shutdown is over.
Regardless of whether we are put on furlough (like me) or we still go to work, none of us are getting paid. For my dear friends in the Consular section, its business as usual. Every day, hundreds of Vietnamese people arrive at the Consulate for their visa interviews. My consular colleagues still conduct the interview and issue the visa or refuse the applications. The local staff still perform all the administrative processes to print the visas and return applicants’ passports to them. Everyone is still employed, their work goes on as though nothing is different.
What is different, though, is that none of them are getting paid.
According to past practice, after the shutdown is over and the government has funding again, all of us will be paid for the work that we did during the shutdown. But there is no legal requirement for the government to give us back pay. What that means is that those “essential” personnel are required to work with no pay. I’d think, given our nation’s history, that we’d frown on making people work without paying them.
Hyperbole aside, shutdowns are disruptive to government operations. We have important business with foreign governments that affect American citizens, involving trade, health, and security. These problems don’t go away when the government stops working on them. They don’t even slow down. After we go back to work, we won’t just pick up where we left off. We will have to recover a lot of lost ground and try to restart the momentum.
My work doesn’t involve national security. I don’t have nuclear launch codes. I don’t even know any interesting national secrets. But because I’m furloughed, I couldn’t do my job, and that has directly affected some Americans. Last week, I had to cancel several meetings with American students who are in Vietnam for a study trip. I was going to give them a briefing on U.S.-Vietnam relations, to help them understand this country that they traveled 7,000 miles to visit. But due to the shutdown, I had to cancel. I couldn’t even meet with them unofficially in a neutral place. That would circumvent the rules. So, sorry, students, I really wanted to talk with you. I hope that you were still able to get the information you wanted.
I’ve decided that the healthier attitude to have about this situation is to look at it as a staycation. Sure, there’s no paycheck coming in, so I can’t go away on a vacation, but I can still get some things done. I can still study Vietnamese (on my own – no budget to pay for language lessons). I can focus on learning iOS programming (Swift is a much easier language than Objective-C, but it’s still hard). I can work out and stay healthy (not to get ripped, but just to stave off decrepitude and hopefully live a few months longer with lower medical bills). And I can make treats to bring to my poor coworkers who have to work, often doing extra work, with no guarantee that they will ever get paid for it (Consular section, you’re getting coffee cake tomorrow).
My sock drawer has never been more organized.
We had a very interesting (but worrying) all-hands meeting last week. The management officer, who has to try to find money for practical things like paying the rent and electricity bill, delivered some sobering news. The shutdown means no money. Things that we take for granted, like our housing, is currently paid up, but at some point, there will be no more leftover money. Eventually, posts will be looking for loose change under the sofa cushions just to keep the infrastructure of diplomacy running. This is now the longest shutdown in U.S. history. So we don’t have any experience to draw on from this point on, there are no more lessons learned from past shutdowns. We are now navigating uncharted waters. And no one knows how much longer it will last. The smart people are spending a lot of time and effort making long-term plans to deal with an unknown and unclear future.
And aside from a few exceptions, no one is diplomatting.