Federal employees return to work, many frustrated by distraction of shutdown threat

April 11, 2011

What better way to smooth things over around the office after a few rough days of work than to have the boss send a thank-you note?

President Obama tried as much Monday by acknowledging that rank-and-file federal employees last week endured threats of a government shutdown and furloughs as the White House and Congress hammered out the details of a new budget.

In a letter distributed by agencies and departments, Obama wrote, “your patience and professionalism throughout this entire period have affirmed my confidence in you, and everyone who works in our government.”

“You do your jobs without complaint or much recognition,” Obama wrote on White House letterhead. “But it is men and women like you who help make America all it is, by responding to the needs of our people, and keeping our country safe and secure.”

He concluded: “I want to thank you not only for your forbearance in recent weeks, but for the service you render each and every day.”

Despite the gesture, some federal employees said Monday that focusing on contingency plans for a potential shutdown seriously distracted them from their normal duties.

“All our energy was spent just preparing for the shutdown,” said Dwan Reece, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution. On Friday alone, she said, “we wasted a lot of time with what to do if there was a shutdown and how to keep things going in our absence.”

Reece said she was happy to return to work — she was on the list to be furloughed — because she would have lost momentum on exhibits and other programs.

As business slowed last week, Reece said, artists and exhibitors across the country grew impatient with her.

“For people outside Washington, the world doesn’t stop,” she said.

The Smithsonian said Monday it had about 253,600 visitors to its Washington museums over the weekend, roughly 55,400 fewer than the same weekend last year. Spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said a combination of colder weather and the uncertainty of the government’s operating status likely kept some visitors away.

Juanita Wood, who works in the facilities department at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, said last week’s shutdown threat “was a topic of conversation every day.”

“People were worried,” Wood said. A pregnant colleague standing with Wood, who declined to give her name, said the stress of possibly losing pay made her fear for her baby.

“The whole thing was really stressful,” Wood added.

Still others said they had little time to fret because of mounting work assignments.

Catherine Riccio, an aeronautical information specialist for the Federal Aviation Administration, lived through the shutdowns of the 1990s. “Honestly, we’re so overworked, we didn’t have time to worry” about another one, she said.

Her biggest concern is budget cuts to come.

The House and Senate are expected to vote by Thursday on a spending bill with about $38 billion in cuts across the government.

Congressional and White House aides said Republican budget negotiators pushed to include about $1.3 billion in cuts by eliminating bonuses and step increases for some federal employees. But the aides, who were not authorized to speak on the record, said the proposal was dropped from the final budget bill.

Some GOP lawmakers have decried within-grade raises as a loophole in what was intended to be a broad, two-year pay freeze enacted by Obama last year.

Despite the Republican push, the House earlier this year defeated a proposal to deny the raises for the remainder of the fiscal year. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) failed to secure enough votes for an amendment cutting the raises to be added to the final House budget passed earlier this year.

Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), whose Northern Virginia district is home to thousands of federal workers and who held an emergency shutdown meeting last week, said Monday that Republicans “should look to things like closing tax loopholes for oil companies and the extremely wealthy — not cutting the salaries of our middle-class civil servants.”

Despite the continued debate over federal worker compensation, some struck a more hopeful tone.

David Dillard, up early Monday to ride the Metro Green line from Hyattsville to his job at Voice of America near the U.S. Capitol, said he had no complaints.

“Everybody is smiling for a Monday,” he said. “It does seem that everybody is just glad to be back to work.”

Staff writers Hamil R. Harris and Eric Yoder contributed to this report.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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