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World

Washingtonians make the most of shutdown

They're pushing prams, sitting in bars, or jogging through the city: Although furloughed, US federal employees in the capital are not really happy, despite a sudden abundance of free time due to the government shutdown.

Jeffrey Dutton is one of more than 800,000 furloughed federal employees. I met him Friday morning outside a café near the government district. Although he normally wears a suit and tie, today he's in shorts and a t-shirt.

"I'm trying to stay positive," Dutton said, as he tries to take advantage of the situation to do things he normally wouldn't have time for. "I've done three yoga classes in the last two days, in addition to my running," he said.

No business as usual

Although the weather in Washington, D.C., couldn't be better, Dutton is having a hard time enjoying it. "There are times when it feels frustrating to not be working and to see so many other people going about their daily lives in a normal way, and then mine is completely different. And it's not my choice," Dutton told DW.

Dutton is in his early 40s and works as a director at the Department of Commerce. He's responsible for trade relations, mainly with China. But China will have to be patient - just like European Union negotiators in Brussels, who have been waiting in vain for their American counterparts to commence a second round of negotiations on a trans-Atlantic trade pact.

Empty government departments

U.S. government statistician Steve Hanway, who normally leads a team of statisticians tallying injuries of consumers for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, spends some of the time he cannot be working because of the U.S. government shutdown weeding a long neglected garden outside his home in Gaithersburg, Maryland October 4, 2013. Hanway is spending his days sidelined in his home in Gaithersburg, Maryland, one of about 800,000 federal workers furloughed in the first U.S. government shutdown in 17 years. REUTERS/Jim Bourg (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS POLITICS) - eingestellt

Government employee Steve Hanway now has plenty of time on his hands to tend his garden

Without staff, cancellations are running high in Washington as government agencies stop working. The fall meeting of the International Monetary Fund in Washington next week is also affected.

It does rankle Dutton when he considers how hard his colleagues work, and how important their work is for the country. It definitely affects government employees when the boss categorizes them as "non-essential" and puts them on furlough.

Apart from lost income, it's psychologically tough, as people within the agencies are filtered out into those who can stay and those who can't. "I feel that it's unfair to those of us who are furloughed. We are the 'collateral damage' to this rather childish skirmish on Capitol Hill," Dutton said.

Just a few of the approximately 800,000 affected federal employees are protesting against their forced vacation. Under the headline "A slap in the face," the "Washington Post" published a photo of a handful of demonstrators on Friday.

Europeans may have a hard time understanding why Americans are not more outraged about this, but, Dutton explained that many of his colleagues may not be demonstrating because they don't see how that would help their situation.

Financial insecurity

A few miles beyond the government district, I talked to John Sikking on the street. Near Washington's National Cathedral, whose spires tower over us at the highest point in the city, he pushes his little daughter along in her baby carriage.

A jogger passes a street food vendor next to the U.S. Capitol in Washington October 3, 2013. According to vendors, Food truck operators, along with other vendors, have seen a significant decrease in business due to the federal government shutdown. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS) - eingestellt von gri

Food vendors have seen a significant decrease in business due to the shutdown

Sikking is also partially affected by the shutdown. He's a federal contractor hired by government agencies and he has not gotten any work since the shutdown.

He described how many of his co-workers are afraid, not knowing how long they can hold out financially through the shutdown. He believes that the government won't start functioning again for another several weeks.

He's adjusted to it, for now, despite the mortgage payment being due and bills starting to pile up during the congressional blockade. "I have managed to keep busy during the day," Sikking said. "Luckily my wife does not work for the federal government, so while she's at work I spend more time with the children, and taking care of a lot of the homestead."

Unusual atmosphere

The American capital, normally full of life, has become much quieter. The city subway runs empty, museums and parks are closed, and even the memorials on the National Mall aren't accessible.

The latter didn't last long - on the day after the shutdown started, pictures circulated of veterans who rolled their wheelchairs past the closures and visited the monuments anyway. The atmosphere in the city has changed, Sikking explained.

"It's more like a holiday weekend than a normal work week," he said. Sikking added that "a lot of commerce in the city will suffer - the restaurants and the other things like that, while people cut back. Or, while federal employees who are normally in the city stay in the suburbs as opposed to coming in town and having lunch or dinner or drinks."

To see if people would indeed be buying less alcohol, I went into a liquor store. Business as usual there, I was told. But Dan Haas, a Washington wine dealer, said the situation could change over time.

"Wine is a happy thing - and if people aren't happy, and they're out of work and they're not getting paid, then they're not going to be buying wine," he said.