Furloughed fed finds work through Hard Times

WASHINGTON — The days suddenly seem longer for some of the 800,000 federal workers furloughed this week.

With no jobs to report to, many people throughout the region are spending their unexpected vacations volunteering at local organizations, completing home projects and even earning extra money on the side.

At Hard Times Cafe in Bethesda, Md., Department of Commerce employee Bill Fanjoy organizes chairs and wipes down tables. Most days he directs an office that helps U.S. companies export their goods abroad. But on this sunny Friday in October, he is preparing for the lunch rush.

“It is overwhelming,” he says.

“Most people wake up and are focused on their job, and then all of a sudden you don’t have a job. You’re not on vacation and you’re not looking for a permanent job. It’s just this in-between that’s disconcerting to say the least.”

Fanjoy and his staff spent the first day of the government shutdown packing up the office and putting contingency plans in place. While his department remains closed, some clients will be forced to conduct business without extra support.

“We feel horrible,” he says. “We have clients just waiting for us to re-engage, clients who are in the middle of finding [partners] overseas who are now on hold.”

If those clients run into problems while abroad, Fanjoy suggests they turn to embassies since “it’s lights out” for his office.

“There’s nothing we can do,” he says.

Like others in his situation, Fanjoy just wants to keep a regular routine. He lived through the last shutdown and knows that the political game of chicken can easily stretch into days and then into weeks.

Back then, his wife was furloughed first while working with the Peace Corps overseas. This time around, he was cut right away and his wife remains working at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for another week or so. If the shutdown continues, she will also be furloughed, he says.

Until then, Fanjoy is enjoying his daytime hours working at the restaurant. He says he can be home early enough to greet his kids and get dinner on the table. In fact, Fanjoy views this furlough as a teachable moment.

“It teaches them a few values like work is work. It doesn’t matter where it comes from – you’re thankful to get it,” he says.

The change hasn’t gone unnoticed by his kids, however.

“They don’t know what to make of this,” he says. “Yesterday dad was the director of some offices for the Department of Commerce, and today dad is a waiter.”

It’s not the first time Fanjoy has served tables. He was a waiter about 30 years ago and is confident everything will come back to him. Hard Times owner and family friend Greg Hourigan agrees.

“He’s got the perfect personality for it,” Hourigan says. “He’s smart, so he will be a fast learner.”

A Bethesda native, Hourigan knows several people who have been furloughed this week. He was quick to offer part-time employment to Fanjoy and another federal worker who is filling in as a hostess at Hard Times.

“A lot of my friends are resilient people,” he says. “It’s much better than sitting at home. Absolutely.”

WTOP’s Megan Cloherty contributed to this report. Follow @WTOPLiving on Twitter.