LAGUNA NIGUEL — By 2 p.m. Tuesday, security officer Nick McGahuey felt like he had been summoned to keep the peace in a ghost town.
The Chet Holifield Federal Building on Avila Road here, known to locals as the Ziggurat building, was eerily deserted. Looking for tax advice at the Internal Revenue Service?
"Outta luck," as McGahuey put it. "The doors are locked up tighter than a drum."
Those hoping for help in obtaining Social Security checks would find three employees out of 21 on duty at a solitary window. Inside the Social Security Administration office, row after row of empty chairs symbolized the mood--somber--that greeted the news of a federal shutdown.
"It's flat-out dead," McGahuey said. "It's been quieter since the Oklahoma City bomb scare [on April 19], but even since then, I've signed in 100 to 150 people a day here, just at the north entrance. I've never seen anything like this."
From 9 a.m. to noon Tuesday, the handful of employees who remained at the Ziggurat said the hallways filled up with the usual flock of visitors, wanting information or services from the IRS, Social Security, the National Archives and Records Center and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
But by midafternoon, when nearly every federal employee had been sent home indefinitely on a "furloughed" status, the public also appeared to have gotten the message. Visitors walking the halls by 3 p.m. were lucky to encounter even half a dozen people.
Obviously, the impact was felt more by workers, who may not be getting a paycheck for a while, than visitors who simply have to wait for a restoration of service.
"Our employees are very concerned," said Judy Cole, the branch manager for the Social Security Administration. "Most left here asking themselves, 'Will I get my paycheck on time?' But most spent the day worrying about the people who had made appointments in the days upcoming.
"We're here to serve the public--the elderly, the disabled, survivors who have just had a spouse pass away--and our people were worried that they not arrive to a closed window and an empty building."
Cole was one of three managers kept on duty at Social Security. The other 18 were sent home. But even she wasn't certain that her paychecks would keep coming on time or that she and her colleagues would be reimbursed for days they were furloughed.
"Missed or delayed paychecks are everyone's big concern," she said with a sigh. "Especially in our economy, living in Southern California. . . . If this goes on one or two days, or one or two weeks, well, that's what scares everybody."
Cole summed up the mood of most federal employees in saying that watching the evening news or reading the newspaper had become an exercise in frustration and a grim routine that in recent days has preoccupied families and sent them scurrying for financial contingency plans.
"Every time I turn on the radio, all I hear is, 'The President says no, but the Congress says yes,' or vice versa," she said. "I think we're all getting weary of that."
One of the few agencies open anywhere was the Social Security Administration. But as with the Ziggurat building, Social Security offices in Santa Ana, Newport Beach, Huntington Beach and Garden Grove were handling only emergency claims.
Bob Hartnett, the agency's assistant district manager in Santa Ana, said he had to tell 105 employees Tuesday that they would have to leave because of the temporary shutdown.
"They were expecting it because it's happened before," Hartnett said. "I thought if the President and Congress worked things out, I would have been able to call them back to work [today]. Now, I'm getting worried."
The agency's Orange County office serves about 55,000 local recipients of Social Security benefits. In addition, about 225 people visit the Santa Ana office alone every day to apply for benefits, while another 130 apply for Social Security cards.
Elsewhere in the building in Santa Ana, all but two of the 18 employees of the U.S. Department of Labor were sent home.
Law enforcement agencies and the federal courts are largely unaffected by the shutdown, but at U.S. District Court in Santa Ana, prosecutors and public defenders learned that they can count on paychecks only to the end of the week.
"After that, we're \o7 pro bono \f7 lawyers," said H. Dean Steward, who heads the federal public defenders' office in Santa Ana. "I don't think my mortgage-holders will be too pleased with that."
Similar concerns--about mortgages, rent, tuition and every other household expense imaginable--reverberated through the halls of every federal office in the county, where 14,000 federal employees work.
It was no different in Laguna Niguel, where, despite the deserted ambience, concern was apparent among everyone who stayed behind.