Sayin’s blunt assessment represents an astonishing new status quo for the nation’s capital, a city where roughly one in four jobs — a total of 191,967, according to the latest estimate — is in the federal government.
During prior shutdowns, people elsewhere made jokes about how no one could tell that the government was off duty. But locals, even the ones safely ensconced in the private sector, couldn’t help but notice. Rush-hour seats were suddenly available on the Metro. Lines at lunch spots had shrunk. Streets and sidewalks were easier to navigate.
Since idled federal workers always wound up getting paid back for their involuntary time off, it was these adjacent private businesses where the budget stand-off had some of its biggest effects: When there are nearly 200,000 fewer people making their way to offices every day, that means there are nearly 200,000 fewer potential customers at your boutique, diners in your restaurant or cars at your parking garage.
Now, though, the potential shutdown of 2023 takes place against a backdrop where a lot of those workers are already spending their days at home. As a result, they’re already not parking, dining or shopping downtown.
“They’ve sort of been absent currently,” said Gerry Widdicombe, the chief financial officer of the Downtown Business Improvement District, which covers an area where roughly a third of the jobs are federal. “Nobody really knows where they are in the office.”
“I think you’ll still see, maybe, people who are federal government workers who live in D.C. may reduce their spending a little bit, but eventually, when the shutdown ends, they always get back pay,” Sayin told me. “So from a practical perspective, the federal government shutdown’s impact on D.C. is now limited to, like, the zoo is closed or the Smithsonian is closed. It’s really not particularly important.”
There are, of course, plenty of government contracting businesses who are also liable to not get paid. But the tough labor market could make those firms hesitant to cut people. “None of these contractors want to shed staff because it was hard to get staff,” said Terry Clower, who leads a George Mason University center that studies the regional economy.
To be clear, Sayin, whose organization is funded by some of the region’s top businesses, is not saying the muted impact on D.C.’s economy is a good thing. To the contrary. While Washington boosters have long tried to portray their city as more than just a sleepy government town, the shrugging attitude toward the effects of a possible shutdown doesn’t reflect the sudden rise of a dynamic private sector.
Rather, if Washington is really becoming just another American city where locals only notice a government shutdown because it closes a National Park Service attraction, it’s a danger sign for the capital — and a further indication that all the talk about getting the feds back to their cubicles hasn’t translated into reality.
In April, as the administration planned to end the pandemic emergency, the federal Office of Management and Budget ordered agencies to boost in-person work, something President Biden had called for in his State of the Union address. Last month, White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients followed up with an email to the cabinet saying that “this is a priority of the President — and I am looking to each of you to aggressively execute this shift.”
But a recent report from the Federal News Network shows that, however aggressively executed, this shift will not bring about a return to the glory days of office-building bustle. A running tally of return-to-work plans lists eligible employees’ number of mandatory in-person days per two-week pay period by agency, which range from four (at the Department of Education, the Social Security Administration and the EPA, among others) to between six and eight (at the State Department).
Confoundingly, there’s no single source of information on telework across the vast federal workforce, and the definition of the phenomenon even varies by agency. The Office of Personnel Management (where, incidentally, eligible employees will have to spend four days per pay period in the office starting next month, according to the tally) steered me to the most recent annual report on the subject, which came out last December and covers the year 2021.
That year, some 47 percent of the federal workforce did at least some remote work, which represents nearly all of the employees who were eligible to do so. (Vast numbers of feds work at veterans’ hospitals, serve as federal prison guards, staff TSA checkpoints or otherwise have gigs that can’t be done via Zoom.) A Federal News Network survey this spring found that 30 percent were working entirely remote and 62 percent in a hybrid setup, which for most meant being home four days a week.
But you really don’t need a sheaf of HR data to know that Washington is not the same place as it was before the pandemic.
Downtown streets are quieter and clear out earlier; transit has boosted hours but hasn’t lured back the crowds that used to make rush-hour an ordeal. The city’s nightlife corridors and creative dining scene have bounced back, but workaday lunch spots have still taken a beating, Widdicombe says — even though, in one fringe benefit, some of the federal agency cafeterias have still not reopened, which propels some would-be lunch-buyers outside to the private-sector eateries run by his organization’s members.
“I’d rather have 10 percent of something than 50 percent of nothing,” he joked.
For the city, which worries about rising crime, shrinking budgets and the abrupt end to an astonishing 25-year municipal comeback, this is bad news. For federal employees — and the country they serve — it’s less clear-cut. There’s little evidence that the vast expansion of work from home has meant a worse performance by the agencies, much less led to an epidemic of lazy bureaucrats goofing off in their pajamas, as suggested by some of the GOP pols who want to mandate in-person work.
“They had this huge experiment: Does it work? Can the agency still accomplish its mission? The answer so far is a resounding yes,” says Jacqueline Simon, policy director for the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal union. “We all have a stake in prosperous cities and downtowns that have a lot of economic activity. On the other hand, you can’t place that burden on federal employees to patronize lunch restaurants. It’s not the responsibility of federal employees to keep these businesses in business.”
At a time when large parts of the private sector have become much more flexible, and at a moment where all kinds of employers are having trouble recruiting and retaining top-shelf talent, simply ordering everyone with a federal badge on their lanyard to go back downtown would invite its own sort of personnel disaster.
Still, when shutdowns come, the politics are a reminder that work — especially work on behalf of the taxpayers — isn’t just an economic exchange of labor for money.
Part of what a national capital is involves a community of people working on the nation, whatever the source of their paycheck. Some of those folks, in law or lobbying or media or on the Hill, are involved in the political fray that Americans find so demoralizing. But others, notably those 200,000 feds spending careers developing sometimes comically specific expertise on behalf of obscure multi-letter agencies, live in the most earnest and apolitical culture around.
By and large, it’s a culture that benefits from having so many of the pros in the same place at the same time.
Smart-set types mock the federal lifers’ lanyards and bureaucratese, but the further our public servants are out of view, the easier it is to dismiss the entire venture — particularly in a country like this one, where so much of government takes the form of subsidies and grants and other ways of obscuring Uncle Sam’s role in programs that people actually like.
“There’s this huge push to get federal employees back to their desks by the same individuals who are like, ‘Let’s shut it down,’” scoffed Simon, noting that much of the agita about federal telework came from the Republican right. It’s true. But when federal employees stop getting paychecks next week, there will be that much less evidence for the havoc the imbroglio is causing.
Even if you leave aside the grim data about commercial real estate and local tax revenues and accept the assertion that hybrid government workers do just as good a job as the ones who used to spent every Monday to Friday in the Federal Triangle, it’s still clear that Washington has lost something due to the abrupt changes in work.
Yes, you could say the same for other cities where downtowns are full of bankers or insurance brokers or advertising agents. But in the capital, the work of government is why the city was invented in the first place. A status quo where the apoliticals stay home — or, over time, relocate to entirely different time zones — further tips the balance towards the pugilists, whose jobs show no sign of moving.