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Government shutdown sets federal workers on edge

    Vicki Maturo

WASHINGTON » The government shutdown has set federal workers on edge, leaving them to wonder how long it may be before they get paid again as lawmakers show no sign of ending the standstill.

Workers were paid retroactively for time away from work after the last shutdown in 1995, though it’s not clear if they will be paid for furlough days this time around. The loss of a paycheck could be critical for lower-paid workers like janitors and maintenance staff, but even workers with savings were talking about trimming grocery budgets and putting off big purchases and spending on things like home renovations.

Some 800,000 federal workers have been told not to report to work until Congress reaches a budget deal. Visitors to the nation’s federally funded parks and museums have been turned away, and government help ranging from farm subsidies to health care assistance have been snared in the stalemate.

Richard Marcus, who lives in Silver Spring, Md., and has worked at the National Archives and Records Administration for 29 years, was spending his first full day at home today catching up on bills and paperwork. He said the mood of his co-workers on Tuesday as they shut down ranged from "resignation to anger."

"I think that’s probably the spectrum. We felt as though we’re caught up in this whole business as pawns," he said.

Marcus’ wife works, so they will be able to get by — but renovations to their home, including patching a leak in the bathroom, will be put on hold, he said.

At least some workers will have the option of filing for unemployment benefits, while others may look for part-time jobs or volunteer work. For now, Greg Bettwy, 46, was spending some extra time with his dog Newton in a Washington dog park and planning to catch up on TV shows he had recorded.

Bettwy works in human resources at the Smithsonian Institution and said workers are concerned about potential lost wages.

"There’s a lot of economic worry with this one," Bettwy said.

With workers like Bettwy staying home, some commuters felt the difference with less crowded trains and buses and fewer cars on the road. On Washington’s Metro commuter train, normally packed subway cars had open aisles and even empty seats in some areas this morning. Metrorail saw a 22 percent reduction in ridership through the morning rush, said Metro spokesman Dan Stessel. Metro will not change its weekday schedule but is running only six-car trains until further notice, Stessel said.

At a news conference today, federal workers joined Democratic lawmakers in calling for a spending plan to get the public servants back on the job.

"Enough is enough," Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. "Sequestration is stupid. Shutting down the government is stupidity on steroids."

Across the country, meanwhile, many were confused about what was closed and what remained open. In Wyoming, busloads of tourists from Asia and Europe arrived at Yellowstone Park to find it closed and had to make other plans. Visitors to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota were forced to view the monument from afar, with roads into the park and even many viewing areas blocked off. The doors were locked at Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell and Independence Hall as well.

The closures gave some other businesses a bit of a temporary boost, however. The privately run National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia saw a 25 percent uptick in visitors Tuesday, and the facility has relaxed its usual $12 admission to allow visitors to pay what they can. In Wyoming, communities just outside the popular national parks were seeing hotel rooms fill with displaced tourists.

Closer to Capitol Hill, businesses were feeling the sting. Sandra McCluskey, the owner of Le Bon Cafe near the U.S. Capitol, said her restaurant usually has a line to the door at lunch on a nice day like today. But she had so few customers she closed at noon. McCluskey, who has owned the cafe for 22 years, said she had to throw away baked goods and doesn’t plan to open Thursday.

She said the shutdown also is affecting her catering business. She had plans to cater a party at the U.S. Botanical Garden and a boxed lunch for a bus tour coming in for an education program at the Smithsonian, but both have put her on notice that they may be canceled.

"There’s a real trickle-down effect," she said.

Associated Press writers Brett Zongker in Washington and Maryclaire Dale in Philadelphia contributed to this report.

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