Federal employees return to backlog of work after 35-day shutdown
By LISA REIN, TRACY JAN AND JULIET EILPERIN | The Washington Post | Published: January 28, 2019
WASHINGTON — Hundreds of thousands of federal employees returned Monday to their offices after more than a month away, slogging through long to-do lists as they worried that they could end up furloughed again in February if Congress and President Donald Trump can't reach a border deal.
Across the country, federal employees worked to get the government back up to speed. In airports, security lines were moving faster after five weeks of extended absences sidelined 10 percent of the nation's baggage screeners. National Park Service rangers assessed the damage from winter weather. The Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo prepared to reopen Tuesday.
The shutdown cost the American economy about $3 billion, the Congressional Budget Office estimated Monday.
As they returned to work, employees were concerned that they might not receive back pay for several weeks.
On Capitol Hill, congressional leaders announced that a joint House-Senate committee would meet Wednesday to try to reach a compromise on border security by Feb. 15, when the temporary funding bill that reopened the government late Friday expires. Trump wants $5.7 billion to build a border wall with Mexico that Democrats have rebuffed.
Democrats also urged the Trump administration to quickly issue back pay to more than 800,000 workers and pledged to help compensate tens of thousands of federal contractors who lost pay and, for some, health insurance.
Trump over the weekend left open the possibility of another shutdown. But White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Monday that the president doesn't want the government to close again.
"That's not the goal," she said. "The goal is border security and protecting the American people. . . . Ideally, Democrats would take these next three weeks to negotiate in good faith."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement: "Families across the nation are still trying to recover from a month of missing paychecks and overdue bills, but the President is already threatening a second shutdown if he doesn't get his way.
"When the Congress completes its bipartisan, bicameral work to fund government, the President should swiftly sign that legislation to avert another shutdown and restore certainty to our economy and the lives of the American people."
As large segments of the government restarted after 35 days of inactivity, returning employees hugged colleagues, jettisoned sour milk from refrigerators, shared furlough stories and changed computer passwords. The tech support team at the Department of Housing and Urban Development said it received more than 1,000 calls by 1 p.m. Monday for help getting computers back online and resetting passwords.
In some offices, it felt as if time had stood still; the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, issued its list of accomplishments for 2018 in the last week of January.
Several senior leaders personally welcomed their employees back as maintenance staffs turned the lights back on.
At HUD, Secretary Ben Carson dispensed handshakes in the lobby and a one-page fact sheet titled, "Your first day back: 12 fast facts."
Item No. 1 was when employees would be paid: Two installments no later than Thursday, the sheet informed them. Overtime also would be paid. Any unemployment benefits that workers received during the shutdown must be repaid.
Shortly after 8 a.m., Peace Corps employees were greeted with boxes of doughnuts and signs that said "Welcome back" and "Thank you for your public service." The good cheer was provided by staffers from the National Peace Corps Association, an alumni group.
"All of us have been feeling the pain of the shutdown," said Glenn Blumhorst, president of the association. "We're relieved and pleased to see things will get back to normal soon."
But getting back to normal won't happen in a day. Native American tribes said they're eager to see payments for health clinics and other services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The shutdown prompted the Kickapoo Tribe in northeastern Kansas to lay off 22 people in its municipal government - including most of its police officers and firefighters - but Lester Randall, chairman of the tribe, is hesitant about rehiring workers in light of the possibility of a second government shutdown.
"We don't want to hire people back and be back in the same situation," Randall said.
Ron Allen, Tribal Council chairman and CEO of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe in Washington state, said many native tribes are now pushing for an early disbursement of money for reservations in case there's another shutdown next month.
Although the country's 122 prisons were fully operational during the shutdown, Monday's reboot wasn't always easy, because of friction between officers who called in sick and those who worked 16-hour days to cover those missed shifts.
"Knowing that some people were at home while some people were encountering real dangers, that creates divisiveness," said Eric Young, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council of Prison Locals.
As they streamed into the nine reopened Cabinet agencies and dozens of smaller ones, employees encountered a hurry-up-and-wait reality. It will be days until their back pay arrives. Days before they speak to contractors to restart their projects. Days before they disburse grants to advocates for low-income Americans in cities and rural areas.
"It was damaging to us, for sure," Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton said in an interview as more than 4,000 museum employees returned to work Monday. He noted that visitors were turned away and an estimated $3.4 million in revenue was lost, "and there's no way to make that up again."
At the Food and Drug Administration's campus in Silver Spring, Maryland, Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said on Twitter that very few companies had submitted applications for drug and device approvals during the shutdown, so the agency now expects an influx of submissions.
As they worked to catch up, employees expressed concern about when they would receive the two paychecks the government owes them.
Agencies planned to disburse the back pay on different days, depending on their payroll providers, and in many cases via two separate checks, the second of which may not hit workers' bank accounts until February.
NASA, the State Department and the Justice Department told their employees that they would receive two retroactive paychecks no later than Thursday.
"Agencies work with various different payroll providers, so it's not fully consistent across the board," a senior administration official said Monday, speaking on the condition of anonymity to brief a reporter. "But what is consistent is that all employees will receive their back pay as soon as possible."
Many employees faced the realization that as soon as they're paid, they will have to pay back the unemployment benefits they received during the shutdown.
In Montana, for example, 1,698 federal workers had made claims for unemployment benefits as of Friday. Brenda Nordlund, the administrator of the state's Unemployment Division, said it is now their responsibility to alert her office when they receive their back pay.
Nordlund said her office will work with employees on the timing of the repayment, establishing payment plans where necessary. Each state is likely to have different procedures for recouping the money.
Amid Monday's activity, the possibility of another shutdown loomed.
"Things are not back to normal - far from it," said Joe Rojas, a correctional officer and union president at the Coleman penitentiary in Florida. "We are less than 21 days away from possibly going back to this nonsense."
At the Lompoc prison in California, union president Ryan Enos advised staff members to conserve their money.
"Pay what you have to pay," Enos told them. "Don't buy things you don't need. It could happen again. Don't get too excited and spend it all at once."
Holly Griffith, an engineer at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, said she was "happy to be back" at her job with the Orion program, which is developing a spacecraft to send astronauts to deep space.
"But I'm concerned about the stopgap nature of the reopening," she said. ". . . What reason is there for me or anyone to have any confidence at all that these same people will have their minds made up in three weeks?"
While National Park Service staffers turned out in force Monday across the country, operations were not back to normal at many sites. Olympic National Park in Washington state suffered storm damage during the impasse, for example, and park officials warned that as a result, "many park roads and campgrounds remain closed. Park staff will start assessing damage, clearing downed trees and storm debris from roadways and campgrounds, and reopening areas as quickly as possible."
Julia Quintanilla, who has worked for 27 years as a janitor at the Department of Agriculture and other federal agencies, said she returned to work Monday morning and found the office in disarray.
"Everything's dirty," she said. "The desks are dirty. The hallways are dirty. The windows need cleaning."
Quintanilla, who makes about $600 weekly, immediately began scrubbing Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue's windows. She wanted them to sparkle, to prove her worth after a month's absence.
As a contract worker, she's not eligible for back pay. Every hour Quintanilla cleans, she said, is a step closer to paying back the $1,000 of debt she accrued during the shutdown.
The Democratic-led House moved quickly to schedule a vote as soon as Wednesday on a bill to give federal employees a 2.6 percent raise retroactive to the first pay period of the year. This would be a boost from the 1.9 percent figure the House and Senate debated last year before Trump said he would not offer any raise.
But some lawmakers said they did not see a quick resolution to the question that has paralyzed them for months: how to reach agreement on border security.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said he was "not real confident" that an agreement could be reached to avert another shutdown, "but of course I'm hopeful that it will."
The Washington Post's Mike DeBonis, Sean Sullivan, Peggy McGlone, Brady Dennis, Tim Craig, Carolyn Johnson, Ben Guarino, Dan Zak, Ashley Halsey III, Eric Yoder, Carol Morello, Jeff Stein, Felicia Sonmez and Danielle Paquette contributed to this report.