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Furloughed workers aren't happy about being 'pawns on a chessboard'

FARGO -- It's not the uncertainty or living in limbo financially and personally that furloughed federal employees say is the hardest part about being a civil servant right now.

The tough part is trying not to take it personally.

Some say they have been made to feel like the villain in a political game they played no part in creating.

"I don't know what we did to be punished," said Susan Buhr, a U.S. Department of Transportation computer technician. "When I first started with the government, it was an honor, and over the years it just seems to get worse and worse every year. We're blamed for everything."

Furloughed employees -- those Congress deemed "nonessential," about 97 percent of the federal workforce -- were told Oct. 1 not to return to work until lawmakers pass a new budget.

Buhr, of Moorhead, Minn., worked from home and in the Department of Transportation office in Fargo.

"I wake up and I hope for some good news, but there is nothing," the 35-year federal worker said of her daily routine. "I've been depressed, not knowing if I would get a paycheck, not knowing how long this would go on."

Like Buhr, Josh Kramer's daily routine went askew with the onset of the shutdown.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture employee in Bismarck drops his three children off at school and returns home in hopes of hearing good news on the shutdown. When none came after the first few days, Kramer said he lined up a couple of jobs helping family with the harvest.

"Thousands and thousands of people who do important work aren't able to do that now," Kramer said.

U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon said the shutdown is a blow to personnel.

"It's absolutely devastating to the morale of our office," he said.

Purdon said the shutdown is just another strike at federal employees following years of hiring freezes and last year's sequester cuts.

In his office, 43 employees -- mostly support staff -- were furloughed Oct. 1.

"Those folks are sent home, furloughed, without pay," Purdon said. "These are dedicated public employees who have chosen to make their career in the U.S. attorney's office working hard. They've got bills to pay; they've got families to care for."

This comes at a time when caseloads are exploding.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in North Dakota prosecuted 125 defendants in 2009. The number of defendants jumped to 250 in 2012 and is on pace to be more than 350 in 2013.

To keep up with the cases -- such as crackdowns on drug kingpins and child pornographers -- those on furlough will likely work on a rotating schedule, but Purdon is concerned with the morale and personal toll the furloughs will have on staff.

At the North Dakota National Guard, spokeswoman Amy Wieser-Willson said close to 500 technicians in the state Guard were initially furloughed.

On Monday, all but about 10 returned to work.

Once they were back to work, most of the Guard members seemed happy to be there, but Wilson acknowledged the uncertainty of a furlough could take a toll.

"The idea of suddenly going without a paycheck for the foreseeable future is pretty unnerving," she said.

Kramer said it is a frustrating situation for public servants.

"These are real people we are talking about, not just pawns on a chessboard," he said.

Buhr said it was an honor to be considered for a government position when she took her civil service exam 35 years ago.

A generation later, Buhr said her daughter, like many other young workers, is not interested in government work. They focus their job searches in the private sector.