Earlier this month News Growl reported on Libertarian Party members from the greater Washington, DC area clearing litter and garbage that had piled up in and around the National Mall during the government shutdown. In the process we learned that one of those volunteers, Libertarian Party of Northern Virginia chair Adam Theo, was a furloughed federal government contractor.

Unlike federal agency employees, contractors do not automatically get back pay for the lost working-time once a shutdown is over. And, while the desperate plight of some federal employees was regularly reported in the media, the stories of federal contractors during the recent shutdown were much less prominent.

We asked Adam if he could tell us and our readers a bit about what his unplanned month without work was like (other than picking up litter and shoveling snow with his fellow Libertarians) and he was happy to share his experiences with us.

Please note, this interview took place on Thursday January 24th, the day before the shutdown ended. Although Adam has now thankfully returned to work, the issue for him is as relevant as ever. He faces another furlough in just over two weeks if the talks between the White House and Congressional leaders are not successful.

The News Growl Interview: Adam Theo

News Growl: Can you start by telling us what you do and who you work for?

Adam Theo
Adam Theo at the National Mall preparing to clear litter. Image: Jess Mears.

Adam Theo: Sure. I’m a communications consultant, specializing in video production and strategic communications.

I currently work for an excellent, medium-sized, but rapidly growing consulting firm called BayFirst Solutions LLC. They deal primarily in network engineering, cybersecurity, and various specialty services for the U.S. Coast Guard, Transportation Security Administration, Department of Transportation, and other federal agencies.

NG: Which agency shutting down has resulted in you being furloughed?

AT: The U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Its various components and directorates are my employer’s largest clients.

NG: Is everyone at BayFirst Solutions furloughed then?

AT: Not everyone. Those who work with the Department of Defense, Department of State, or Department of Transportation have continued as normal.

NG: Federal employees have received reassurances they will eventually get back pay after the shutdown. What is the situation for you? Have you gone without pay entirely, or had half pay?

AT: To my knowledge support contractors, the companies I mean, never receive back pay. I don’t expect to receive anything along those lines. Those are the trade-offs of contracting and consulting, honestly.

When the furlough started I was allowed to use to my vacation hours – until those ran out. Thankfully my company allowed other employees who were not affected by the shutdown, including some of the company leadership, to donate their own vacation time to help those of us who were furloughed.

This was one of the most generous and uplifting things I’ve experienced in a long time, honestly.

NG: That’s amazing!

AT: It was more than I’d ever expected, and made the difference between no pay and more than enough to not have to worry about my regular bills or groceries. It’s a gesture that really stood out to me about my company’s culture.

NG: On the first workday after the shutdown started, when you suddenly couldn’t go into work, how did that feel?

AT: I was a bit worried, but not too much. I had been planning to take some time off during Christmas and New Years anyway. I assumed (incorrectly!) that this shutdown would last at most a couple of weeks before there was a short term agreement.

I was worried about some of my immediate co-workers, some of whom I knew had been planning to work through the holidays to save up their vacation time or were needing each paycheck to help with their rent or childcare.

I’m single, and with no children. That’s allowed me to be flexible during the shutdown. I realize I’m in a much better position than many other people I know who are new parents or where both partners were hit by this shutdown together.

NG: Even without a family to support, being caught in limbo like that must have been stressful. How do you cope?

Adam Theo on the Mall
Adam Theo, far right, organizes Libertarian litter pickers on the National Mall. Image: Ford Fisher / News2Share

AT: I’ve decided to stay busy and be productive. I helped with charity work cleaning up trash on the National Mall, political organizing for some local issues I’m interested in, and a little bit of non-political activism.

I have to admit, I tried so hard to stay busy partly to keep from worrying about the shutdown. I treated this charity work and the organizing efforts as a job in itself, sticking to regular hours and routines. I thought of it like ”it’s just another job.” That attitude really helped my anxiety.

My diet did suffer, though, as I was spending far more time at networking and charity events.

NG: Why has that made your diet suffer?

AT: I usually eat healthy and workout during the workweek, and then allow myself to splurge on food, alcohol, and sleeping on on the weekends. With the shutdown I quickly found my mind and body in permanent weekend mode.

I inadvertently dropped my usual vegetarian or grilled chicken meals with tea for frequent burgers, Buffalo wings, and beer, which I normally only have once or twice a week. It’s been very difficult to force my mind and body back into that healthy mindset outside of the structure of the 9 to 5 routine.

I will be extremely happy when this shutdown ends.

NG: It sounds like you’ve still managed to keep a positive attitude. Has there ever been a moment when you just got really angry? Like waking at 2 am and just feeling outraged?

AT: I’ve not been angry at all, but there have been times when I felt exasperated by our government leaders.
I’ve tried to not think about the political back and forth within the government honestly. It would only end up stressing me out further.
Instead I’ve tried my best to see the benefits I could extract out if the time while spending as little money as possible. I used the shutdown to renew my professional networks and skills that I don’t often use in my day job, which went a long way towards my happiness and sense of productivity.

NG: So it sounds like even though you are insulated from some of the biggest stress-points by support from your colleagues, it has still be a really difficult time. Has the shutdown made you rethink any parts of your life?

How federal contractor Adam Theo coped with the 35 day shutdown
Adam Theo (far right) and fellow Libertarians with some of the collected litter. Image: Ford Fisher / News2Share

AT: I’ve realized I needed to become a lot more flexible and active with my skills and relationships outside of my normal career field. I’d allowed myself to become too comfortable with the skills I already knew and the types of jobs I have always had.

This shutdown has been a rude awakening. Things I depend on could evaporate with a single stroke of Congress’ or the White House’s pen (or lack thereof).

That may sound like an optimistic, personal-growth-style take on things, but that’s because I’m relatively lucky. Many people are not in a position to be able to take those steps right now.

NG: Can you explain what you mean by that a bit more?

AT: It’s easy for someone like me or another well-paid creative consultant to shrug and say “I’ll get another job.” But I’m well aware that if this had happened to me seven years ago, when I had no savings, only entry level skills, and no network of people to reach out to, the shutdown could be life-destroying.

NG: So do you think this shutdown may result in fewer people wanting to work for the federal government in future? Either directly or as contractors?

AT: I can’t say what others are thinking, but I suspect a lot of federal employees and contractors are feeling uncertain about their future. I’m sure there are quite a few who have been making at least tentative plans to exit the federal workforce, or possibly to try and get into the Department of Defense – it is never hit by shutdowns. Even after the shutdown ends, I can imagine those plans will continue.
I don’t think there will be many issues in hiring new staff, though. The positions will need to be filled, and there are always qualified people willing to jump in and do the work. If there’s a really quick turnover in experienced staff, it could lead to a brain-drain, though.
NG: Thanks for taking the time to speak to us. Good luck for the rest of the shutdown and the next few months!
AT: Don’t worry, I’m happy to do it. I am trying to keep busy, you know!
President Trump signed an agreement with Congressional leaders to reopen the government soon after we last spoke to Adam Theo. He has confirmed in an email since then that he has now returned to work and is really hoping there will not be another shutdown in mid-February.

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