I’m writing this on the 21st day of the federal shutdown – the threshold upon which it becomes the longest one in US history. As a former federal employee and the spouse of one, I have experienced a shutdown and the even more onerous aspect, a furlough. For those who have blissfully never been through it, a shutdown results in people who work in the unfunded departments and agencies being classified as essential (formally the term is “excepted”) or non-essential. Those who are deemed essential have the privilege to go to work, even though they are technically not being paid and have no guarantee that they will eventually be made whole when the shutdown ends. In practice, however, when a shutdown ends there is legislation that retroactively compensates essential workers for their time. Those who are deemed non-essential are furloughed – told to go home and wait for the shutdown to end. Furloughed federal employees are in an even more precarious position as they have historically had a lower probability of being made whole – as was my husband’s case. (Congress recently passed a bill that would retroactively reimburse furloughed federal employees after the shutdown and, while the President has said he would sign it, nothing is a done deal until it has a signature.)

While shutdowns demoralize and financially harm federal workers, they also have broader community impacts. Many federal roles are filled by contractors – some of whom do exactly the same jobs as the federal employees who sit at the next desk over. Contractors are generally furloughed in a shutdown and are less likely to be made whole after the government is funded. The vendors who support federal workers – whether the sandwich shop near their office, or the drycleaner in their neighborhood, etc. – have less business. The folks to whom they pay bills are also impacted – including the daycare provider, the rental company or mortgage provider, the credit card company and student loan entity, etc.

We all know folks who are furloughed. They are going through all kinds of trauma – personal, financial, professional. One of my furloughed friends commented that the furlough is forcing her to think about her post-federal career options. The key is to listen well to them as they express their needs. Maybe it is just a need to talk or a desire to be doing something productive. The wealth of talent that has been sidelined by this furlough is immense and they all have a desire to contribute and a set of needs they need help meeting.

If you are not furloughed, here are a few ways by which you can by philanthropic to those who are:

  • Contribute to a nonprofit that is providing services to furloughed families in need. United Way of the National Capital Area has established an Emergency Fund that is donating to community-based nonprofits that support those impacted by the furlough (make sure to specify that your donation should be used to support furloughed federal workers, as many nonprofits have a host of other programs that also need donations). The Capital Area Food Bank and Northern Virginia Family Service are also providing services to government workers impacted by the crisis.
  • Patronize one of the many restaurants that are providing free or discounted meals to furloughed feds and contractors, pay full freight yourself, and make a point of telling the manager that you are visiting the restaurant because of what they are doing for federal employees and contractors.
  • See if your employer has any short-term consulting projects that it has wanted to do but not had the manpower to prioritize. For instance, are there grant or new business proposals that need to be written, research projects that need someone’s attention, or other projects? Federal workers will have to ensure that accepting such project work is allowed under their own department’s ethics and security policies.
  • Consider whether a furloughed friend would be interested in doing some personal consulting work – anything from babysitting to language tutoring. Remember that ‘essential’ employees are in the same boat as those who are furloughed, but still have to report to work. Those folks might need a less expensive means of daycare to help them get through the shutdown IF their daycare provider will allow them to go day-to-day instead of charging the same flat monthly rate during the shutdown period). The OPM suggested that furloughed feds offer their landlords to do manual labor in exchange for not making rent payments. While OPM’s idea is pretty insulting, there is a more appropriate way to have friends helping friends through this tough time.
  • In extreme situations, consider whether a furloughed family member might need a short-term loan. Some furloughed feds have established GoFundMe pages that will allow you to help someone individually.

The federal employees I know are well-educated professionals who are go-getters in the office. Sitting at home waiting for others to end a shutdown is likely driving them crazy. While nothing is going to make a shutdown better, furloughed employees may be looking for zero-cost means of keeping busy during the day. Nonprofits may want to consider what kind of programming they could offer to give those folks a means of volunteering during the work day – a time when volunteers are usually scarce. Beyond that, there are informal opportunities to engage individually (mentoring youth, spending time with folks in a retirement home, volunteering at their kids’ school).

Shutdowns are painful. Make your philanthropy personal and start by listening.