An avalanche of emails, backlogged permits, lapsed contracts and stalled payments to low-income Americans will face the hundreds of thousands of federal employees who return to work today.
For 35 days, they waited out the shutdown of nine Cabinet agencies and dozens of smaller ones. Now, they'll face a major bureaucratic reboot.
A return to normal operations could take weeks or even months. The National Park Service will need to restore basic amenities at hundreds of parks and monuments, removing accumulated trash and plowing multiple feet of snow. The Bureau of Indian Affairs must quickly issue grants to head off food shortages and a health care crisis for American Indian tribal members whose funding was cut off.
Inspectors returning from furlough to the National Transportation Safety Board will have to decide which of the almost 100 rail, plane and highway crashes to investigate first. And the Internal Revenue Service will race to train employees to implement changes to the tax code and hire thousands of temporary workers for tax season.
"I'm so ready to go back to work," said Laura Barnaby, an international trade specialist with the Commerce Department. She was so anxious to dig into her backlog that she planned to log in to her computer from home on Sunday.
The first order of business for her and more than 350,000 others who spent the shutdown at home will be simple office tasks, like new passwords for computers. Timecards will need filling out, so payroll staffs know who was furloughed, worked without pay, called in sick, earned overtime or a combination.
Then there will be the reorganizing. After the shutdown was announced in December, agencies had four hours to close. Employees had just enough time to drop off work cellphones and laptops and record voice mail greetings. Many returning workers will find their offices in a holiday time warp. As of Friday, a Christmas tree and Hanukkah menorah still adorned the darkened, fifth-floor reception area of the Merit Systems Protection Board, a personnel court for civil servants in downtown Washington. Vice Chairman Mark Robbins said he's had no staff to take them down.
Even employees who are anxious to get back to work say they feel paralyzed by what comes next.
When she steps into her office at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center this morning, astrophysicist Julie McEnery knows exactly what she'll do first: water her plants. But then?
"I'm scared to even think about it," she said. "The amount of work isn't less, and we've got a lot less time now to do it."
As project scientist for the Fermi Space Telescope, which surveys the cosmos using the highest-energy form of light, McEnery was called into Goddard a couple of times this month to take care of specific tasks related to the maintenance of the telescope.
"I hope people know this was not a vacation," she said. "It was very discouraging. ... We're not all going to arrive back at work Monday bright-eyed and bushy-tailed."
Several federal managers said their agencies still cannot issue or announce new grants with the uncertainty of such a short-term budget. A senior manager at Homeland Security who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to speak publicly said he is allowing his staff to work from home until they have back pay cash in hand.
Then there will be the physical messes to clean up.
At Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state, where no snow has been plowed since before Christmas, staff members must clear a highway stretching several miles uphill 2,500 feet in elevation to the main visitor center, along with a large parking lot now covered by at least 3 feet of snow, with 7-foot drifts. Park officials announced that visitors should now be able to reach Longmire, where the park's hotel and museum are located. But they cautioned it "may take many days" to restore access to the main visitor center and other high-elevation attractions.
A major cleanup awaits the staff at Sagamore Hill National Historic Site in New York, where a fire started in the gift shop late last month. On Monday, Park Service staff will continue working through the damage to document what has been lost and begin cleaning up.
The IRS told lawmakers last week that the agency will be buried in millions of unanswered taxpayer letters, weeks behind schedule on training and short thousands of new employees for this tax season, according to two House aides who were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
"It's a reprieve," said Gary Morton, president of American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, a union representing about 9,000 Environmental Protection Agency employees around the country, "but how much will we be able to accomplish before we have to start worrying about shutdown procedures again if they don't reach a deal?"
Information for this article was contributed by Joel Achenbach, Carolyn Johnson, Peggy McGlone, Brady Dennis, Kimberly Kindy, Laurie McGinley, Dan Lamothe and Amy Goldstein of The Washington Post.
A Section on 01/28/2019
Print Headline: Federal workers return to posts