Furloughed federal workers protest outside the U.S. Capitol to demand an end to the lockout of federal workers caused by the government shutdown Oct. 4. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)
The political divide that has kept the federal government in shutdown mode for more than a week may be growing, but the shutdown itself is shrinking.
An estimated 800,000 of the more than 2 million government employees were deemed “non-essential” and furloughed when the federal fiscal year began Oct. 1. However, almost half the cuts were civilian Defense Department workers, and most of them are returning to work. Thousands of workers in other agencies also are going back to their jobs.
“They are trying to bring back folks when there is a crisis,” said Tim Kauffman, spokesman for the American Federation of Government Employees. Kauffman said about half of the 670,000 federation members were furloughed last week, but that many have returned to their jobs.
Last week, the Social Security Administration brought back tens of thousands of workers. The CIA announced plans Wednesday to recall an undisclosed number of “employees who are necessary to carry out the CIA’s core missions.” And the Federal Aviation Administration said it is bringing back more 800 inspectors, oversight staff and others.
And there have been temporary recalls — the Federal Emergency Management Agency brought people back when Tropical Storm Karen threatened the Gulf Coast, and the Centers for Disease Control called workers back this week to deal with a salmonella outbreak sweeping the nation.
There is a hitch: There is no guarantee that workers who have been called back or those who are still furloughed will be paid. The House passed a bill to pay those working and another bill to pay those on furlough. The bills are currently in the Senate.
Last week, Cortney Robateau, a case worker in the Social Security Administration’s Office of Disability Adjudication Review, was considered a non-essential government worker. She was furloughed along with almost everyone nationwide in her division.
On Tuesday, she was considered essential and told to report back to work Wednesday or face disciplinary action. And it’s all without guarantee of pay, she said.
“We’re being forced to go back … and they expect us to give 150%,” she said, noting she’s frustrated by the back and forth political jockeying.
“It’s like we are caught in the middle of a really bad divorce,” she said.
Some Departments were barely hit by furloughs -- about 97% of Department of Veteran Affairs employees were exempt. Defense Department numbers were not available, but 84% of Homeland Security employees were exempt, as were 80% at Justice.
Only 10% of Treasury employees were exempt; the number was 18% at Health and Human Services.
The number of people furloughed can fluctuate up or down. Kauffman said that some federal employees who continued to work last week are only now being furloughed. The Veteran’s Benefits Administration furloughed 7,000 workers this week.
Nick Schwellenbach, senior fiscal policy analyst for the non-profit Center for Effective Government, said agencies that regulate, investigate or provide personnel for major emergencies — such as storms or airplane crashes — are most likely to bring people back before a budget deal to end the shutdown is reached.
He also said workers who may be brought back are staff that can help deal with specific situations or emergencies such as wildfires and mine disasters. But don’t look for your local national park to open any time soon — despite the hoopla around the inconvenience to vacationing families or couples wanting to get married.
“Getting married is not seen as an emergency,” he said. “They are not going to reopen the gates because of a pissed-off couple.”
Schwellenbach said agencies that do not have emergency functions are more likely to have workers out until the shutdown ends. That list would include scientists conducting experiments for the National Institute of Health, physicists working at labs with the Department of Energy, or statisticians and economists with the Census Bureau or the Bureau of Labor statistics.
“Their work is valuable to the media and businesses ... (but) their work is not seen as an emergency,” he said. An exception would be some kind of economic disruption that needs immediate analysis, he added.
NASA is another agency that likely will have to wait to bring back staff.
“The astronauts at the space station are obviously not furloughed, but unless an asteroid is hurtling toward Earth, I don’t see NASA bringing people back before the shutdown,” Schwellenbach said.
Other agencies, such as the Department of Education, Commerce and the Internal Revenue Service, are also likely to avoid the “non-essential” tag, he said.
And anyone looking for any public records, don’t even bother. Every agency with a Freedom of Information Act office is closed.
“That’s an ancillary function,” Schwellenbach said.
Edgar Morales is an underwriter for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He said those who work to improve the lives of people in low-income communities do important work, but he acknowledged that it is not considered an emergency function.
“We are the low man on the totem pole,” he said, adding: “I know the work I do is very important.”
Contributing: Elizabeth Weise, Heather Mongilio
Bello and Bacon write for USA Today.