The tables were empty Tuesday afternoon at the Mediterranean Chef restaurant near the Johnson Space Center, closed because Congress failed to authorize funding to keep the government running.
"I've never seen it like this before," said restaurant owner Nidal Ayoub. Ayoub said 80 percent of his business is from the 3,200 workers furloughed from JSC and from visitors at the nearby Space Center Houston museum, a nonprofit tourist attraction.
Likewise, not a single customer was to be seen at Moreno's Mexican Food and Bar next to the Space Center Houston entrance. "We are very affected by it," waitress Blanca Cuellar said. The restaurant depends on NASA employees as well as the thousands of tourists who visit the museum, Cuellar said. The museum's tram tour includes part of JSC.
Fifty-five years to the day after President Dwight Eisenhower signed the law creating NASA, the agency furloughed 97 percent of its 18,250 workers Tuesday, among about 800,000 federal employees furloughed nationwide.
In Houston, only a skeleton crew remained at Mission Control to protect the lives of the astronauts orbiting in the International Space Station.
No one in Washington seemed willing to predict how long the government shutdown would last. But Bob Mitchell, the president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership, predicted a solution would be found before the area economy sustained serious damage.
"Probably the amount of time means there is going to be very little if any impact on the community," Mitchell said.
He said the bulk of the aerospace work is done by contractors with about 11,000 employees in the bay area. Mitchell estimated that few contract employees would be furloughed.
Bills aren't stopping
Bridget Broussard-Guidry, 47, is one of the Johnson Space Center employees temporarily without work while waiting for Congress to act. Broussard-Guidry, a financial management specialist for NASA, said she and other furloughed workers would cut back on spending because they don't know how long they will be out of work.
Employees also are worried by the lack of a guarantee they will be paid for the forced furlough, she said.
She has enough savings to last about a month, but many co-workers don't have as much of a cushion, especially single mothers. "The bills aren't going to stop because the government shut down," Broussard-Guidry said.
Many packed their belongings as they left the office Monday, not knowing when they would return, she said. "It was sad."
Broussard-Guidry is head of the local union at the space center, the American Federation of Government Employees Local 2284.
She plans to immediately compile an email list of union members and begin a campaign to pressure Congress to end the furloughs and pay workers for time they were forced off the job.
"They can't keep using federal employees as pawns," Broussard-Guidry said.
The furlough also worries workers like Alece Kibler, a waitress who depends on tips at the Mediterranean Chef. The NASA employees who regularly show up for lunch weren't there Tuesday. "Our lunch is what supports us," she said.
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