POLITICS

Furloughed Pentagon Workers Jog On Washington To Protest Sequestration

07/09/2013 05:22 pm ET | Updated Jul 10, 2013

ARLINGTON, Va. -- There are few benefits to being furloughed because of sequestration. Hitting the snooze button without regret, plowing through your DVR library and checking items off your to-do list are a few. Jogging five miles through the suffocating humidity of a typical Washington, D.C., summer afternoon is probably not.

And yet, on Monday at 5:30 p.m., dozens of Department of Defense civilian employees could be spotted in one of the Pentagon's parking lots, stretching their legs and ligaments in preparation for a run through the nation's capital.

The goal was to spotlight the fact that some of their furloughs were starting that day. And if that meant participating in a balmy run without pay -- well, they'd tried everything else to get sequestration canceled, why not self-inflicted physical exhaustion?

"We were having lunch and said, 'God, we just got our furlough notices, so as directors, what are we going to do to help morale?' So we started developing the idea to do a run ... It just started morphing, and people started buying in and finding a positive outlet to deal with the stress," said Christel Fonzo-Eberhart, who along with fellow employee Beth Flores came up with idea of a "race" to boost employees' spirits.

At the Department of Defense, sequestration came late. While other government agencies cut back on work and workers after the budget reductions passed at the beginning of May, DOD delayed the pain as long it could. On Monday, no more delay was possible, and 650,000 civilian employees began a furlough process that will force them to take 11 unpaid days off (two every pay period) until the end of September.

Fonzo-Eberhart and Flores set up a Facebook page to publicize what they called the "Federal Furlough Five Mile Fun Run for Freedom," in which more than 80 furloughed workers and supporters signed up to participate.

As they readied for the jog, the DOD employees joked ad nauseum that they would only go at 80 percent intensity -- the same percentage of time they would now be working. Many wore T-shirts that read, "Doing our best, four days a week."

Behind the playful talk, however, was obvious irritation. And as they began the slog over the Arlington Memorial Bridge towards the Lincoln Memorial, a few allowed themselves to vent it to The Huffington Post, whose reporters jogged alongside them.

The furloughs "create a lot of challenges around the office as an office director," said Jay Finch, 39, who provides policy oversight and user guidance for rockets and satellites. "You have a lot of people who are motivated and committed to the mission and are being told they can't do their job. And it sort of goes against the grain for these types of people to take a day without looking at their BlackBerry, because they do care about the mission and they want to see it done. So keeping morale up is difficult in these sorts of times."

For Finch, the effects of sequestration are largely confined to the place of work. He and his wife don't have children, so the loss of income will be easier to absorb and his current standard of living will be easier to maintain.

Others on the jog had already made some shifts to accommodate the furloughs. Christine Smith, a civilian employee, said she had not gone to a restaurant in six months "because of the fear of sequestion." She'd also worked to get her grocery bill as low as possible, shaving off $2,000 in that same time period. With the loss of a day of work each week, she had begun exploring the idea of picking up a part-time job as well.

"There was no way to fit it in," she conceded. "I don't think anybody would want to employ somebody for one day a week. Never mind that you are highly overqualified for everything you could apply for."

Bob, a political appointee at DOD who declined to give his last name for fear of repercussions, wasn't contemplating part-time work as he made his way over the Arlington Memorial Bridge. Monday was his first furlough day, and he had spent it trying to cut costs rather than trying to earn more money.

"I had lunch with a good friend, I went back to sleep when the alarm went off, and I started researching how I could pay less for cable," he said of the day's activities. "I haven't figured that out yet. They don't make it easy."

To demonstrate the economic ripple effects of sequestration, consider that Bob's provider is Comcast. If just 10 percent of all furloughed DOD employees cut their cable bill by an average of $20, that would represent a loss of $1.3 million to the provider. Not that Comcast's bottom line is foremost on Bob's mind.

"I love what I do," he said. "I work with great people. And I do some great work for the country. I miss doing that."

This, indeed, seemed to be the prevailing sentiment of the furloughed throng as it weaved its way past the reflecting pool and on to the National Mall. While conventional wisdom now holds that sequestration was an oversold bag of budget cuts, these employees' lives were being damaged and their work was being harmed.

The arrival of the DOD furloughs gave lawmakers a hook on Monday to send out strongly worded press releases decrying the effects of sequestration. But that just left the runners all the more piqued. Elected officials had been promising for months that the furloughs would not take place. Now, a legislative resolution seems further away than ever. One jogger told his colleagues as they passed him that he was merely "leading from behind" -- a reference to a description of the Obama administration's foreign policy with regard to Libya. Another runner dismissed his slow pace as still being "faster than Congress."

And after they got to the finish line -- appropriately set at the four-mile mark instead of five (80 percent of the way, after all) -- the employees' displeasure hadn't dissipated. With the Capitol building in the distance, Peter Ipsen, a civilian DOD employee, urged its occupants not to underestimate the havoc they've wrought.

“You know, you can only hope [that Congress will act], because it is not just the 650,000 Defense Department employees who are hurting. It is all kinds of other people. It trickles out," he said. "It is great that [House Speaker] John Boehner and his folks get to keep their jobs ... but there are a lot of other people's jobs that are going to be affected by this."

Federal Furlough Five Mile Fun Run For Freedom
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