35-day to-do list to catch up on
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 Monday.
For 35 days, they waited out the shutdown of nine Cabinet agencies and dozens of smaller ones. Now, they’ll face a massive 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 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 IRS 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 eager to dig into her backlog that she planned to log in to her computer from home Sunday.
Barnaby’s immediate concern is a blown deadline for a prestigious presidential awards program for exporters, “a big deal in my little world,” she said. After that, she intends to tackle the fact that her advisory group of companies advising the U.S. government on an upcoming trade pact with the U.K. missed multiple meetings.
The first order of business for her and more than 350,000 others who spent the shutdown at home will be simple office tasks, such as 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 did a combination of those.
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 to record voicemail 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.
Programs will need to be restarted, a process that can involve many layers of bureaucracy and boxes to be checked. Private contractors may have reassigned employees who had been working on projects put on hold during the shutdown, said David Berteau, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council, which represents workers with roughly 400 private government contractors.
“It may take days to get started,” he said. “We have no experience at starting back up after five weeks. ... You have to make sure that the funds are still available before you can start the contract again. And everybody’s going to be trying to do it at once.”
Even employees who are eager 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 on Monday 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.”
To boost morale, several agencies are planning hero’s welcomes for their staffs. The Peace Corps is holding an official event for returning employees starting at 7:30 a.m. Monday.
But many workers say they’re anxious. They won’t see the back pay they’re owed until later this week. And President Donald Trump has threatened another closure in three weeks if his demands for border wall funding aren’t met.
“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?”
For offices in which staffs were essentially entirely furloughed, the return to normal operations could be particularly slow.
The Food and Drug Administration will start taking new drug and medical device applications, but agency officials acknowledge that they may not fully catch up for almost a year.