The notion of “non-essential” workers is one that Paul Lorrain of Lyman can hardly fathom.
“If they’re non-essential, what the heck are they doing there?” Lorrain said of the estimated 800,000 federal employees who have been lumped into that category for the government shutdown that started Tuesday. “I don’t think there are a whole lot of them around.”
Lorrain, who is a brewer and an organic farmer, said he understands how insulting it must be to those employees who are temporarily jobless while many members of Congress still get paid.
“I would never belittle someone like that,” Lorrain said of his own handful of employees at Sunset Farm Organics.
The terms “essential” and “non-essential” are vague, said Dawn Self-Cooper, manager of the Maine Department of Labor’s CareerCenter in Springvale. Because they are open to interpretation – by the employees and their managers – they can be a cause for anxiety.
But whether the non-essential workers’ job interruptions have a sharper sting than any other employment dislocation is hard to say.
“Any time somebody is laid off, there is a whole gamut of reactions, and one is that they don’t feel valued,” Self-Cooper said.
The federal furloughs do evoke a particular kind of dread, said one of Self-Cooper’s colleagues who met this week with some of the hundreds of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard workers who were sent home because of the shutdown.
It’s the “Unknown Factor,” Ben Neveux, an employment training specialist, wrote in an email to Self-Cooper. “Layoff situations are either indefinite or of limited duration. In this case, neither.”
There’s also the wound that comes from feeling expendable.
That idea rankles Shane Watson, plumbing supervisor for Johnson & Jordan Inc. Mechanical Contractors of Scarborough. He manages 23 workers who are installing plumbing and mechanical parts in the Cumberland County Civic Center’s renovation in Portland.
Federal employees deemed non-essential, he said, “absolutely, definitely, should feel insulted – especially when Congress is still getting paid.”
Asked if he thinks his own job is essential, Watson said: “For my own well-being, yes.”
As for who might be considered superfluous in the workplace, Lorrain offered his own opinion: “There are 536 non-essential people in Washington right now” in the House, Senate and the White House, “and they ought to be booted out.”
Lorrain said he remembers when the labor of many farmers – not to mention organic growers – was trivialized by many people. But he doesn’t pay much attention to that kind of thinking, he said, because he knows the worth of his work.
“You know, you might have to see a lawyer once or twice in your life, or go to the doctor a few times a year,” he said, “but you need a farmer three times a day.”
Many people find it degrading that the government is splitting its workers into two camps: essential and non-essential – “excepted” or “not excepted” from the furlough.
“Words can be hard for people,” acknowledged the city of Portland’s spokeswoman, Nicole Clegg. “Everyone is valuable. Every job is valuable.”
Clegg said safety would be a key factor in evaluating staffing. Some city clerks, in theory, might be furloughed if there were a city budget crisis proportionate to the federal shutdown, but police officers and firefighters, as emergency responders, would stay on the job, she said.
The whole issue of whose job can be suspended for a time deserves careful thought, said Luisa S. Deprez, professor of sociology at the University of Southern Maine.
The question is likely to evolve into deciding which services are essential, rather than specific positions or people, said Deprez, a faculty member in USM’s women and gender studies program.
Women and children will feel the ill effects of the shutdown most, she said.
For example, funding for the 9 million recipients of the Women, Infants and Children Food and Nutrition Service is uncertain already. The program, which provides supplemental support for those living at or below the poverty line, is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has indicated that no additional funds will be available during the shutdown. The trickle-down effect could be immense, especially in states that can’t pick up the slack.
“Those (programs) are basically considered to be non-essential services,” Deprez said. “But I’m not sure feeding one’s baby and oneself is a non-essential service.”
Lorrain said, “I don’t think we’ve seen the worst,” but he’s taking his comfort where he can find it.
“When times are good, people buy beer,” Lorrain said. “And when times are bad, they buy more beer.”
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