By Steve Cole

Let’s imagine the unimaginable. The partial U.S. government shutdown, now a record at nearly a month long, continues for another month, maybe two. Lots of paychecks missed. Lots of government services not available. Lots of pain for many Americans. A hot mess, no matter what your position on “the wall,” and one that will only get hotter as the impasse drags on.

The good news for government workers who are working but not being paid or, like me, furloughed and not working at all is that the government has decided to make good on our lost wages after the shutdown ends. Congress passed a bill on Jan. 11 assuring these workers will receive back pay, and the president promises to sign it.

As a civil servant working for NASA in Washington, and a resident of South Baltimore, I really appreciate not having to manage a gaping hole in my income this year. I’m one of the lucky ones with enough cushion in the bank to weather a string of missed paychecks, so money is not my current worry.

Even though giving federal workers back pay is absolutely the right thing for the country to do, as a taxpayer you have to be struck by the immense waste it represents. Quick back-of-the-envelope calculation: for each month of shutdown with 350,000 furloughed workers not working, the country loses seven million days of human productivity. That time is valued at $2.5 billion in salary alone. The money Congress can find, but that productivity is gone forever.

That’s a huge waste. If only there was some way to put that dormant human talent, creativity, and energy – those hours of labor lost – to use in our community. What a windfall that would be, and all paid for by Uncle Sam courtesy of Donald Trump!

As one of those furloughed federal workers, I can tell you that after nearly 4 weeks at home I’d jump at the chance to exchange my largely solitary “furloafing” for daily workplace interactions with others on a worthwhile endeavor. I’ve kept plenty busy so far, but my personal to-do list has dwindled with household repairs completed, favorite recipes cooked, family aid provided, and local museums visited. I can’t imagine I’m the only one in this boat.

This is my second federal furlough; the first was the 16-day shutdown in 2013. A long shutdown is an odd kind of limbo. Your work life is forcibly removed from your life for an unknown length of time by forces beyond your control. You quickly learn that even a full, self-satisfying schedule of miscellaneous personal projects is a meager substitute for the rewards of contributing alongside others to a common effort that is bigger than yourself.

So, to other federal furloafers reading this, those of you with the good fortune of being unencumbered by pressing financial or family demands, why don’t we step out of our comfortable zones and homes and put our talents and energy to work again, free of charge, for a worthy cause. Any worthy cause. Think of it as your own personal transfer of federal funds, in the form of your labor, to a deserving organization or business that probably would not have received any if Congress and the Administration had their way.

There certainly is no shortage of deserving workplaces in our area – human services nonprofits, social justice organizations, arts groups, minority-owned businesses. The challenge is to match up our individual skills and passions with the needs of organizations willing to take a chance on us. (We may come willingly without a price tag, but we will eventually vanish with barely a day’s notice when the government reopens.) Hopefully this article can kickstart a process that connects willing workers with interested workplaces.

I hope as a nation we can salvage something positive from this stupid, embarrassing, wasteful shutdown. If it drags on for another month or more, I’d want to be able to look back with satisfaction if not pride at something substantial I contributed to the world with my taxpayer-funded free time.

Steve Cole, a furloughed civil servant working for NASA is one of about 800,000 federal workers impacted by the longest federal shutdown in the country’s history.

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