04/06/2011 06:47 pm ET Updated Jun 06, 2011

In a Government Shutdown, It's Our Fellow Americans That Get Hurt

Government employees are easy scapegoats. When it's time to balance the budget, Congress cuts programs and payrolls. Even the president announced a pay freeze this past December and the partisan rhetoric surrounding the potential shutdown often portrays civil servants as villains as opposed to victims.

The reality is that a government shutdown sends people home without pay. That's right: government employees that find themselves furloughed on Friday night will not be enjoying some cushy paid vacation from work. They won't get a dime during the time they're forced to stay home.

In fact, some employees are concerned about insurance and unemployment. What happens when your organization shuts its doors for an undisclosed period... but you know they will one day open again?

Hope O'Keefe, an associate general counsel for the Library of Congress, lived through the last shutdown. She recounted her experience in a GovLoop forum discussion entitled, "Did You Survive 1995?"

December, 1995. My agency was targeted for major cuts, and 89 coworkers -- roughly half the staff -- were laid off just before the shutdown. Staying at home, waiting for the phone to ring, was not remotely a vacation, but more like a deathbed watch. The shutdown ended -- and the snow hit. We finally went back to work, and half the conversations in the halls were along the lines of "I never expected to see you still here.

Warigia Bowman, an assistant professor at the University of Mississippi, agreed: "It was one of the most discouraging parts of my life." She went on to tell her story:

I did survive the 1995 shutdown, but it had a fairly harsh effect on me. I was a young woman, in my early twenties. I was idealistic, and excited to work for the progressive Clinton Administration. I reported to my job at the environment division of the United States Department of Justice, and shortly thereafter got furloughed. I left DC after three years, much disillusioned.

Another survivor of 1995, Phil Sammon "was a Ward Clerk Supervisor at the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis during the '95 shutdown." Phil remembers the dedication of his fellow civil servants:

A lot of folks I knew in the daily clinics were sent home but anyone who worked on the wards with inpatients, or in critical environmental services areas had to show up every day and night for work. We knew that eventually we would get paid. We also knew that the veterans we saw every day in the beds, the ICUs and coming and going to and from surgeries needed us to be there. So no one slacked off. A lot of us were veterans ourselves and we could easily see ourselves in a bed one day. It is called civil 'service' for a reason.

Wondering what people would do this time around, I asked the community: "What should we do if government shuts down?" My favorite response was this one from Michelle, a social network administrator for the State Department:

I think we should organize a series of volunteer activities ahead of time (perhaps daily) that many employees can attend at once. We meet other govvies and we turn something ambiguous and stressful into something positive.

Other members applauded that idea. In fact, an organization called Shutdown Startup emerged a few weeks ago with a tag line that states boldly: "If we can't serve our country, we'll serve our community."

As a former government employee and someone who engages in conversations with public servants every day, I can assure you that this is the spirit with which most "bureaucrats" approach a shutdown. They want to go into the office -- and many would do so without pay. But it would actually be a crime for them to try!

So forget the potential for negative political impact on the president or prominent congressional leaders. The real casualties of a government shutdown are the civil servants who wake up every morning on a mission to make a difference for our country.