Government shutdown: Unfurlough.us connects federal workers with start-ups

Washington start-up community 1776 offers Unfurlough.us, a website that connects furloughed workers with freelance gigs at start-ups during the government shutdown.

Patrick Semansky/AP
Felicia Evans Long, a program analyst at the National Institutes of Health who is currently furloughed, prepares to mail two pairs of shoes she recently purchased in Gaithersburg, Md., Oct. 3, in order to receive a refund and put the money toward other expenses. On Saturday, the House voted to give furloughed workers backpay for the days they were off during the government shutdown.

When the government shut down last week it sent more than 800,000 federal employees into sudden, temporary unemployment. But even temporary unemployment could have disastrous effects on any employee dependent on a steady paycheck.

So when the government shutdown, start-ups stepped in. Washington-based start-up community 1776 and Tom Clark, vice president of marketing at myEDmatch, put two and two together. Start-ups need smart workers for quick projects that pop up as business takes off. Furloughed workers had plenty of experience in areas across the tech, business, and media world and needed a quick paycheck.

The solution? Unfurlough.us, a site that connects furloughed government workers with freelance start-up projects.

Originally, the site started as a Google Doc where the tech community could post jobs and workers could respond to ads. But as demand increased, BLEN Corp, a Washington-based web design firm worked with 1776 to develop a simple website that offers two tabs: gigs and freelancers. Start-ups post gigs that workers can respond to, and freelancers can post their qualifications and resumes in case a company is looking for something specific. Examples of recent gigs include freelance photography for myEDmatch, translation for oDesk, and software programming for the OpenGov Foundation. As of Wednesday, the site had more than 57 open freelance gigs and 55 freelancers looking for work.

Donna Harris, co-founder of 1776, says this is a scary time for federal workers used to having a solid employment foundation.

“The reality is that for many federal workers, or those in contracting positions, being furloughed puts a fine point on the fact that the jobs they thought were secure are now just as risky as other options,” Ms. Harris says in an e-mail.

Now, she says, by bringing workers into the start-up community, furloughed workers may see that a job in the private sector may be more stable and more creative than their federal work.

“In DC, we have more science, tech, and engineering workers than any city in the nation,” she says. “And we have incredibly deep domain expertise in areas like education, healthcare, energy, transportation, etc. There is a large and vibrant start-up ecosystem in DC, top 5 in the US and rapidly climbing, that they could be [contributing] rather than toiling away in government roles. Ironically, the shutdown is giving them time to explore it.”

Not to mention, the site itself is a bit of a start-up, created in under five hours using open source tools. Start-up companies and freelancers can post as they like, which has led to rumors of non-furloughed workers taking advantage of a freelance job board. Harris says they do not actively manage the postings on the board, due to its open nature.

Besides this, not all furloughed workers can hop in and out of the freelance world. At the bottom of the site, Unfurlough includes a notice that reads, “For federal workers, it's important to note that they should check the ethics guidance for their individual agency before engaging in outside work. Furlough or not, they are still employees of the Federal government.” For example, executive branch employees are not allowed to engage in any outside employment that conflicts with the employee’s official duties.

But for those who can work, the shutdown could end up changing their career trajectory. Start-ups at 1776 have employed workers to do photography, basic coding, and industry research. Plus, 1776 will be offering free start-up training via online classes from a partnership with General Assembly, and are planning sessions that will bring furloughed workers into 1776 to find out more about entrepreneurship in Washington. In an email, Mr. Clark says there is definite interest: the Google Doc had well over 3,000 visitors and despite the House of Representatives voting to offer back pay to furloughed workers, traffic to the website hasn't slowed down.

As the shutdown continues, and political bickering shows no sign of ceasing, Harris points out that finding solutions may be what sets DC start-ups apart from the Washington government in the minds of fed up furloughed workers.

"This is what make entrepreneurs different from other people," she says, "where there is a problem, entrepreneurs always see opportunity."

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