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Column: What I did on my furlough

There's a picture of painted toenails against the background of a cool, blue pool.

A proud dad with a newborn son.

A garage project.

A thick, smoked brisket.

These are all responses by federal workers explaining how they spent their furlough day.

Nice, right? Except forced time off is also divisive, painful and political, like everything else in Washington these days.

Two women who work at the Pentagon — and are part of the 650,000 defense civilian workers taking 11 mandatory furlough days throughout the summer and into October — tried to put a positive spin on the sequester debacle with a Facebook page, "How I Spent My Furlough Day." (Those numbers include 3,550 civilian employees at MacDill Air Force Base.)

They invited other folks who are forced to take a 20 percent cut in their workweek to post how they're spending that one pay-free day every week.

"Making lemons out of lemonade" is how one of the page's creators, Beth Flores, put it.

And they have gotten stories of house projects finally done, recipes to try, coupon exchanges to help stretch dollars. They posted a "Furlough Friday" rap (recycled from 2010), Furlough Fashion (a plain old T-shirt) and Furlough Food (ramen).

Flores, who is 40 and lives in Arlington, Va., said she started the unofficial Facebook page after all the mundane, clinical details of the furloughs were rained upon her staff, with no levity.

"No one had really tapped into the human dimension of it. We just wanted to lighten the mood," she said.

Those with upbeat takes — like a dad spending more time with his kids or using his furlough time to do volunteer work — have been blasted for playing into the public perception that federal employees are overpaid.

And there has been no shortage of political commentary flambéing Congress, whose inaction triggered the sequester and put everyone in this place.

Beyond an album of how people spent their furlough day, Flores helped create a tapestry of the American economic story — how the cut in pay affects so many different people in different ways. She said she wasn't naive and knew that opening the page to the public could make it less than lighthearted. So she wasn't surprised when it became more combative — and poignant.

Flores works as the director of leadership and organizational development in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Now she does that just four days a week. And she was hoping to create a Facebook community to help others through the furloughs.

Flores and a fellow furloughed worker, Christel Fonzo-Eberhard, even organized a Furlough Fun Run this month, complete with slogans such as, "I'm running instead of ... providing world class military health care." Like their workweeks, the run ended at the 80 percent mark of the expected length.

Flores has watched the group swell and the posts quickly go from DIY projects to political screeds. The pool and a day around the house isn't in the cards for folks who need every penny of their earnings to pay their bills.

"Not sure what/how a lot of you get to 'go away,' " writes a man who posted a photo of six packages of rice and ramen, explaining that this is his "lunch & dinner for the week," thanks to the bite out of his family's budget.

This is a time in America when the gap — let's call it the ramen-pool gap — is widening.

"The income of the top 1 percent nearly quadrupled from 1979 to 2007, but the typical family's incomes barely budged," President Barack Obama said last week.

No kidding. It's all laid bare on that Facebook page, where you see exactly what a 20 percent reduction in work — and what amounts to about a 25 percent cut in pay — means for folks who are squarely in that middle class or trying to arrive there.

It's a reminder that all it takes is one or two bad turns — a spouse out of work, a sick kid, a major home repair, a 20 percent cut in the workweek — to fall out of the pool and into the ramen.

© 2013 Washington Post

Column: What I did on my furlough 07/30/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 30, 2013 5:12pm]
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