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Duke hosts lunch for furloughed alumni in D.C.

As the longest government shutdown in U.S. history continues, hundreds of thousands of federal workers have been left furloughed or expected to work without pay. 

For Duke alumni affected by the political showdown, Wednesday offered a brief respite when the Duke in D.C. office hosted a lunch for the furloughed employees. 

“As this one dragged on well past the New Year, we saw a lot of stories coming out about the effects this was having on people personally,” said Jeff Harris, director of Duke in D.C. “As it’s coming to the time where federal employees are actually going to miss their paychecks, we wanted to see if there was anything small we could [do] for the really dedicated community of alums we have in public service and the federal government right now.”

More than 20 alumni gathered at the office on the 26th day of the shutdown, including employees from the State Department, Department of Justice, Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

“I would say for the most part, folks were doing okay,” said Kristina Jeter, assistant director of regional engagement for the Duke Alumni Association. “People were just happy to get together.”

Jeter said she was an employee in the White House during the 2013 government shutdown, so she had experienced the federal closing from the perspective of the alumni the lunch was trying to reach. 

“Folks kind of have this idea that you’re on vacation,” Jeter said. “After a few weeks, you start to go stir-crazy. And there’s not really a sense of when this will end, so you end up being alone in your apartment or home or not really hanging out with a lot of folks because you don’t have a lot of money to fall back on.” 

As the shutdown drags on, federal employees will soon miss a paycheck. There is currently no clear end in sight, as President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats square off about funding for a border wall. 

According to an official update Jan. 14, Duke’s Office of Government Relations continues to monitor the situation. Among the affected agencies are the EPA, Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Transportation. Agencies not affected include the Department of Defense, Department of Education, Department of Energy and the Department of Health and Human Services—which includes the National Institutes of Health. 

“The people were happy to be able to come together, and it’s a little bit frustrated about the state of things,” Jeter said. “But it’s a great opportunity for folks to be able to connect with one another and meet new people.”

Harris said that other schools and organizations around town had hosted similar events, and that he heard from colleagues that their office had done an event like it during the 2013 shutdown. Currently, there are no other events planned, he said, but future events may result from continued conversations with those affected by the shutdown. 

Harris said he hopes, however, that they will not need to hold any more events like these. 

“It was a lovely opportunity to meet with some folks under some tough circumstances. Our hope is that we don’t have to do this again, that they can go back to work,” Harris said. “I think one of the things that was striking was that while they were happy to be amongst their Duke family and friends. They all seemed very eager to get back to their jobs because they really believed in what they were doing.”