Feds happy, mostly, to be back to work; Obama gives them big thanks

Joe Davidson
October 17, 2013

Brenda Beaty is glad to have money in the cash drawer to count.

She was in her small office in the back of the Urban Cafe, a snack shop on the third floor of the Department of Health and Human Services’ head office, ready to make an afternoon tally. The store was open Thursday for the first time this month, and the receipts were more than welcome.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

Half of October had passed without the sale of even one bag of chips. When much of the government shut down Oct. 1, so did the Urban Cafe. So Beaty was happy to be open again, even if business was only half as good as normal the first day back.

Although her sales were off, “the lights are on, the offices are full and people are glad to be here,” said Mark Weber, an HHS spokesman.

Like other top officials — including Vice President Biden, who greeted returning employees at agencies — HHS Deputy Secretary Bill Corr and Chief of Staff Andrea Palm were at the department’s front door to welcome workers. Words on television screens in the cafeteria reinforced the message: “You’ve been missed.”

The Urban Cafe lost about $18,000 in sales during the shutdown, Beaty said. Unlike the federal employees who buy her products, Beaty will not get back pay. Her employees could get unemployment compensation, but as the shop’s owner, Beaty isn’t eligible. Being visually impaired, her options were limited.

“When something like this happens, we lose out,” she said. “We get nothing. The bills never stop coming.”

She’s not the only one who lost out.

The nation lost confidence in a government that could not keep itself in operation because of the governing philosophy of many House Republicans: My way or no way. If employees behave that way, they should be fired.

No danger of anything like that Thursday, it seemed. Many employees couldn’t wait to get back on the job, said J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees.

He talked about his wife, Lynn, a Department of Veterans Affairs employee, who woke up early telling him “how excited she was to go back” to help veterans.

Some, such as David Timmons, a Social Security Administration worker, admitted to enjoying “furlaxing” — that’s relaxing during the furlough. Heading back to his office, he said, “I could have used another couple of days,” echoing a sentiment shared by others.

But most are glad to be back and to get the pay they missed.

An Office of Management and Budget spokesman said federal employees will get back pay “in their next paycheck.” And the budget measure reopening the government allows federal workers to receive a 1 percent pay raise in January, which would break a three-year freeze on their basic pay rates.

“The government shutdown was a real punch in the gut to federal workers who were already reeling from multi-year pay freezes, sequestration cuts and furloughs, as well as threats to health and retirement benefits,” Sen. Ben Cardin said in a joint statement with Sen. Barbara Mikulski (both D-Md.). “These hardworking public servants did not cause our economic crisis, but they paid a heavy price.”

President Obama recognized the toll on the federal workers with strong remarks in support of them Thursday morning.

“I’ve got a simple message for all the dedicated and patriotic federal workers who’ve either worked without pay or have been forced off the job without pay these past few weeks, including most of my own staff: Thank you. Thanks for your service. Welcome back,” he said.

“What you do is important. It matters. You defend our country overseas. You deliver benefits to our troops, who have earned them, when they come home. You guard our borders. You protect our civil rights. You help businesses grow and gain footholds in overseas markets. You protect the air we breathe and the water our children drink, and you push the boundaries of science and space, and you guide hundreds of thousands of people each day through the glories of this country,” he said. “Thank you. What you do is important, and don’t let anybody else tell you different, especially to the young people who come to this — this city to serve, believe that it matters. Well, you know what? You’re right. It does.”

But if what federal employees do is so important, then why are they, and the nation, subjected to repeated threats of a shutdown?

The funding measure Obama signed Thursday runs through Jan. 15. What’s to say we won’t have more brinksmanship then?

This uncertainty, said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, is “extremely detrimental to employee morale and the effective functioning of government.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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