The Truth About Non-Essential Employees

One of my favorite radio programs put a caller on-air who had this to say about the current government shutdown: “So if the government can function without non-essential employees, why are they on the payroll to begin with?”

This is but one of many, MANY examples of how seemingly normal Americans (even those with the wherewithal to listen to NPR and call in to a show with comments) are surprisingly, depressingly stupid.  Exhibit A is Jimmy Kimmel’s recent segment interviewing people on the streets of Los Angeles to gauge their support for Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act (spoiler alert: Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act are the same thing, which none of the respondents knew despite having strong opinions about which was better and why).

“Non-essential” is an unfortunate and misleading description of employees whose temporary absence from work doesn’t result in immediate chaos or danger.  I got the inside scoop the shutdown from a friend of mine who is a scientist at the National Institutes of Health.  Technically, she’s non-essential.


While she and her PhD colleagues sit at home catching up on crossword puzzles and laundry, essential employees like laboratory technicians are making sure millions of dollars and years of research aren’t wasted.  They “feed cell lines” (I’m not a scientist so I imagine them dropping little mini sandwiches into test tubes, but the reality is probably somewhat different).  They take care of the mice.  They maintain all the living, evolving aspects of the lab until the scientists come back.

No actual science is happening, despite the dedicated work of the essential employees.  Our tax dollars are still being spent, but they are only maintaining a massive, complex operation that’s accomplishing nothing.

Sound familiar, Congress? (By the way, they’ve classified themselves as “essential.”)

But I digress.  Back to who’s essential and who’s not – this question comes down to a matter of perspective and timing.

Let’s use McDonald’s as an example.  If that company faced a shutdown, which employees would be essential?


For the first 8 hours or so, the cooks and cashiers matter most.  Without them, McDonald’s can’t deliver its most basic services.  The entire corporate office could probably go dark for a few hours and nobody in the drive-through line would be the wiser.  Does that mean the suits in Oak Brook, Illinois are non-essential?

Not exactly.

Eventually the stores would run out ketchup and napkins, and somebody in procurement would need to order more.  The logistics team would have to make sure milk was delivered.  Someone in the legal department would have to respond to complaints about too-hot coffee. And so on.

Likewise in the NIH.  The “essential” employees may be enough for now, but the entire mission of the organization has been put on hold.  What’s essential in the short term is not the same as what’s essential in the long term.

Perhaps this concept is too challenging for some Americans to grasp.  If so, it joins a long list of other thought nuggets that seem obvious to me but are far from universal (climate change is a thing, evolution is established science, what “fair and balanced” actually means).

Today’s “non-essential” employees become more essential by the day, as federal government agencies around the country tread water.  I want the NIH to fund important scientific research and find cures for diseases. I don’t want it to be an expensive hotel for mice.

As a rule, all employees are essential eventually.

So to the caller who thought non-essential employees are non-essential forever – I hope we can at least agree that as this shutdown continues, two things are clear:

First, Congress classified itself incorrectly.

Second, they may be the exception to the rule.

 house chamber


5 thoughts on “The Truth About Non-Essential Employees

  1. Beth Sholl Purdy

    HAH! Good piece! I could say that I believe the DOE folks are absolutely non-essential, but I work in State Education, so I can’t really go there. 🙂

    1. lmctaggart2013 Post author

      Beth, thanks! The friend at NIH is someone you know, too, but I’m respecting her privacy so maybe you can guess. The reality of how the shut down works for the internal folks involved is even worse than the media portrays (if you can believe it!).

  2. Joanne M

    The inability of (some? many?) to understand what seem to be basic concepts of our government and its guiding principles is frustrating. What happens when we need to have rational discourse amongst ourselves, on our blogs and Facebook pages and newspaper letters to the editor, about the debt ceiling, which is, frankly, a little more complicated. And that’s where this showdown, engineered by a minority group to flex their muscles, is going. I would argue that the United States government reneging on its debts is a specter that no one in this country, or globally, wants; particularly not when we don’t really have to be there, do we?

  3. Amy R

    I was wondering how the government research labs would handle the shutdown. No scientist wants to throw away years of work and the thought of losing precious reagents is enough to keep one awake all night. Almost as bad – being scooped by another lab. The scientists at NIH are considered among the elite in the scientific community. They are probably not happy at the idea that their race to be first to discover and communicate something is hindered by political maneuvering.

    I don’t think anyone is thinking about the effect that the shutdown or the sequester has on research and innovation (key drivers of the economy, by the way).

  4. Diane Rose

    thanks again laura.. love this blog. Your introspection does clarify for some if not most of the people… love the anology of mickey dees… LOL Aunt Diane

    Date: Thu, 3 Oct 2013 16:36:25 +0000 To:


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