San Antonio defense workers back on job, but concerns remain
San Antonio Express-News
SAN ANTONIO — Most of the 23,000 furloughed defense workers in San Antonio returned to work Monday, still uncertain of the impact of the partial government shutdown.
The shutdown, the first since 1995, began a week ago after Congress failed to approve a continuing resolution to finance federal agencies in the new fiscal year, which began Tuesday.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said this weekend that 400,000 defense workers who were sent home last week, representing half the Defense Department's total civilian force, would return to their jobs under provisions of the new Pay Our Military Act, or POMA.
The department's civilian workforce has taken the brunt of the shutdown, accounting for half the federal workers on furlough.
At Joint Base San Antonio, Stanley Jerry was one of the employees called back, but he wasn't sure how long he would stay at work or when he would get paid.
“I don't know what I'm walking into,” said Jerry, who helps troops and civilians file travel claims and who monitors expense reports at the Southern Region Medical Command at Fort Sam Houston.
He said he and other JBSA civilian workers seemed to be in a state of limbo.
“The way the news is saying, we should still be on furlough,” he said, noting that an afternoon staff meeting shed little light on their situation.
“Congress is playing games,” Jerry said. “It's a waiting game right now to see who's going to fold first. The country or Congress?”
At JBSA-Randolph, where initial pilot qualification flight training has continued without interruption during the shutdown, jets continued roaring overhead Monday.
Gen. Edward Rice Jr., who steps down Thursday as commander of the Air Education and Training Command, said the return of workers offered “a little ray of hope in what is still a very difficult situation because, as you know, we don't have a budget and so we can't spend money.
“So just something as simple as temporary duty travel, where people need to go from one place to another to execute operations, (is) not possible,” Rice said.
Some secondary training had to be halted during the shutdown, forcing trainees to eventually come back later to make up the training and possibly resulting in higher travel expenses, Rice warned.
Vicki Tocci, a human resources worker at the Air Force Personnel Center at JBSA-Randolph, said everything, including operation of the base commissary, appeared to be back to normal Monday. But she said she still had questions.
Tocci got a call from her supervisor Sunday that she could return to work Monday.
“I would be happier if we knew when we will be getting reimbursed,” said Tocci, who has been worried that she might have to negotiate her next mortgage payment if her next paycheck doesn't arrive as scheduled Friday.
Defense Department comptroller and chief financial officer Robert F. Hale has said the Pentagon can pay civilians “on time and in full” Friday, under POMA.
Hagel had directed legal advisers to determine if the number of civilians furloughed could be reduced under the act. Hale said that while the law did not allow for a “blanket recall” of all civilians, it did provide a means to call back those who “provide ongoing support to military members.”
Those jobs involve areas including health care, sexual assault prevention and response, behavior health and suicide prevention, transition assistance for active-military members, commissary and payroll operations, and family support programs.
JBSA officials had warned during the shutdown that some areas of San Antonio Military Medical Center would have extended wait times, with postponement possible in some elective medical and dental procedures. But all 270 civilian SAMMC workers furloughed last week were back Monday, returning the center to its full force of 7,825 workers, including nearly 4,200 staff members on an average day.
“There's a lot of happy folks that are glad to be back on the job, and a lot of our military population was glad to have the civilian folks back whose jobs they were having to handle as well as their own,” said Dewey Mitchell, SAMMC spokesman.
Defense workers make up almost 75 percent of the nearly 31,000 government employees furloughed in Bexar County. One Air Force civilian lawyer who returned to work but is not authorized to comment to the media said workers are confident they'll get paid, yet are not “holding their breath.”
“The exempt employees who stayed behind should be paid for the entire time, but there is no guarantee that payroll will get it right in the system so that they'll be paid on time,” the lawyer said.
Another civilian worker, a contract specialist at JBSA-Lackland who spoke on condition of anonymity, said she didn't worry about herself as much as single-parent co-workers.
“Hopefully, those four days of lost pay won't affect their kids,” she said.
Retired Air Force Col. Lee Ellis, a prisoner of war in Vietnam and author of “Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton,” said he's disappointed in leaders of both parties in Washington for putting politics ahead of the country's welfare.
“It may be politically expedient in the short term, but I don't think it's wise,” Ellis said.
He said Americans need to quit buying into partisan propaganda, look at “what's really happening” and hold leaders on both sides accountable. If he could, Ellis said, he would force the president and leaders of Congress to spend hours negotiating a way to end the shutdown.
“I'd say, 'We're not leaving the room until we figure this thing out,'” Ellis said.