Back to work: Federal employees return to job after 16-day furlough
Federal workers returned to stacks of mail, full email inboxes and telephone messaging systems that were overloaded Thursday after being furloughed during the 16-day partial U.S. government shutdown.
About 7,000 federal workers were furloughed in North Dakota, according to Jasper Schneider, state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development for North Dakota. A budget compromise late Wednesday evening provided funding for federal government programs that had been shut down since Oct. 1.
About 500 employees of the USDA were affected, Schneider said.
"It will be a couple of full days to get everything operational," he said. "It starts by returning phone calls and emails and calling the partners we had pending projects with to see what they need."
Schneider said the phone system at the state office maxed out with 100 missed calls over the past 16 days.
"We have no idea how many calls we missed," he said. "We had a lot of contractors waiting to be paid so that was a lot of calls."
Problems occurred with housing loan applications that involved USDA programs. The partial shutdown may have delayed some home sale closings, Schneider said.
Employees of the USDA's Farm Service Agency office in Jamestown were happy to be back at work Thursday.
"It's going great," said Trish Gehlhar, an FSA program technician. "We're glad to be back at work."
The office's software system wasn't up and running quite yet Thursday, Gehlhar said, but once it is, the FSA's first priority will be to process Conservation Reserve Program and Direct and Counter-cyclical Program payments, which are paid to farmers for using their land in conservation and wetland protection.
Although workers returned to work Thursday morning, the office was nearly empty until about afternoon, Gehlhar said, because people weren't sure it was open. The office also fielded phone calls from people asking if it was open, she said.
Neil Shook, refuge manager at Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge, said workers there faced a backlog when they returned to work Thursday.
"Catching up is a chore," he said. "Projects we were working on stopped on Oct. 1. Now we try to pick up the pieces. It left a lot of our partners wondering what to do next."
Refuge workers were involved with the Stutsman Rural Water District construction project that was laying water lines through the area as well as some road maintenance projects.
Shook said public confusion was one of the biggest problems the refuge faced during the partial shutdown.
"Normal public use activities have resumed," he said. "During the shutdown I did some outreach to inform people that certain areas were closed to the public and fortunately we had no problems."
Getting back to work went smoothly at the U.S. Geological Survey at Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center in Jamestown, said Director Robert Gleason.
"Everyone is happy to be back," he said.
Gleason said Thursday that it was a little too early to assess the full impact of the shutdown on Northern Prairie's workload.
Employees at the Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Jamestown were also happy to be back at work, said Stuart Blotter, assistant state conservationist at the NRCS area office in Jamestown, which serves southeastern and central North Dakota.
"We're back and we're excited to be back," he said.
Eleven work days were lost in the 16-day shutdown, Blotter said. "We're here to serve the public and in those days we weren't able to do that."
Because he works at the area office, Blotter said he also touched base with each field office in his office's service region Thursday morning.
NRCS workers were catching up with clients, responding to many messages that were left for them over the shutdown period, he said. NRCS is also working to get as much field work done as it can before winter.
"I was elated (when the shutdown ended)," Blotter said. "I've never been so excited to come to work."
Many federal workers were told by their employers to watch news during the shutdown.
Gleason said that with Northern Prairie's company email shut down, he didn't have many ways to contact his employees about work until Thursday morning.
"The only way people knew to come back to work was to watch the news," said Mark Sherfy, deputy director at Northern Prairie.
Gehlhar said she kept an eye on the news throughout the shutdown period, too.
"Everyone's been listening to the news because this is our job," she said.
She knew she could return to work after receiving a phone call at 7 a.m. Thursday, but she was "already dressed and ready to go," because she had seen in the news Wednesday night that the budget agreement had been made.
The 16 days off of work wasn't any sort of vacation for the furloughed employees, they said.
Gehlhar said she could hardly go anywhere, because she always had to be prepared to restart work the day an agreement was reached.
She also described filing for unemployment as a protection, just in case the budget agreement didn't include retroactively paying furloughed employees.
"I didn't think I'd have to have that experience in my life," she said.
Although the government's agreement does include retroactive pay for the time federal employees weren't working, the pay won't come immediately, Blotter said.
"We're still awaiting guidance on that," Gleason said.
Blotter said he's not too worried about himself, but he's a little worried about some lower-level employees who may have a more difficult time sustaining themselves financially while waiting for their paychecks.
Gehlhar described the entire shutdown as "an experience."
Schneider said he hoped the shutdown process never occurs again.
"History does tend to repeat itself," he said. "But this is the first shutdown in 17 years. Hopefully the leadership took note."
Sun reporter Keith Norman can be reached at 701-952-8452 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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