by Gregg MacDonald
Many of the approximately 800,000 furloughed federal workers nationwide were given a few hours Tuesday to wrap things up before being sent home, not knowing when they would be allowed to return to their offices. In addition to being restricted from their workplaces, many are also banned from using their work-issued smartphones, and from logging onto any federal office computer systems for as long as the shutdown remains in effect.
For Monica Gonzales of Annandale, these restrictions have caused stress and sleeplessness.
Gonzales is a facilities operations specialist for the National Institutes of Health and oversees facilities and operations for the NIH’s National Cancer Institute.
The institute, established under the National Cancer Institute Act of 1937, is the federal government’s principal agency for cancer research and training. It conducts and supports research, training, health information dissemination, and other programs with respect to the cause, diagnosis, prevention and treatment of cancer, rehabilitation from cancer, and the continuing care of cancer patients and the families of cancer patients.
Specifically, the institute funds and coordinates research projects conducted by universities, hospitals, research foundations and businesses throughout the country and abroad through research grants and cooperative agreements as well as conducting research within its own laboratories and clinics.
Since the shutdown, all federally funded cancer research and non-critical care clinical trials have screeched to a halt.
“A few lab personnel are still allowed to work, but not to do any research,” said Gonzales, who was furloughed. Normally Gonzales monitors a computer system for the institute that, among other things, makes sure that a series of hundreds of commercial freezers housing cancer cells, research projects, pharmaceutical trial drugs and DNA samples are working properly and are maintaining necessary temperatures.
“The items in those freezers represent countless hours and even years of research,” she said.
Since the shutdown, Gonzales has been denied access to the computer monitoring system and says she is beside herself with worry.
“Just last week, a whole line of freezers went offline on my watch,” she said. “If that were to happen now, there would be no one to address it. Normally if that happens, the freezer unit is equipped to contact the computer monitoring system which then automatically calls the researcher or someone on emergency duty, like myself. But right now, I am unable to log in to the system and I am relying on a handful of maintenance people to contact me if they should happen to see anything out of the ordinary.”
Gonzales says that she knows of one researcher who once lost an entire research project that was years in the making because of one freezer that went out. “That fact makes me panic even more,” she said.
Gonzales said she worked for NIH in 1996 when the last government shutdown occurred.
“I was considered essential personnel back then,” she said. “Since then I have been promoted and now I am apparently no longer considered essential, which surprises me considering all that is at stake.”
She says she just has to sweat out the shutdown and she hopes it will soon end so she can get back to work.
“The fact that it is uncertain whether I will be reimbursed financially for this furlough is a concern,” she said. “But that consideration certainly takes a backseat to the importance of the work that is being jeopardized.”