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Now the hard part: Undoing the mess wrought by a 16-day shutdown

Oct. 21, 2013 - 07:49AM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments

After more than two weeks on furlough, Jason Grimes couldn’t wait to get back to his job with the General Services Administration’s Atlanta office last week. But he was also nervous about what he’d find.

“I can only imagine it’s going to be an avalanche of stuff to catch up on and trying to get a sense of how bad the damage is,” Grimes, a sustainability specialist, said in an interview beforehand.

So it went across government as hundreds of thousands of employees streamed back to work after the partial government shutdown abruptly ended.

“It took a little while to get back in the swing of things,” Dwight Jefferson, a social science analyst with the Housing and Urban Development Department in Washington, said after his first day on the job, adding — in a common refrain — “I forgot my login password.” But by the time Jefferson finished for the day, he said, “I felt pretty acclimated.”

The back-to-work summons came on short notice; it was close to midnight Wednesday when the Obama administration told employees to plan on reporting the next day after Congress approved a stop-gap spending bill that ended the 16-day shutdown. Jefferson, who teleworked Thursday, was one of many benefiting from White House instructions for agencies to be flexible in handling employees’ return to work.

In their first full week of being back on the job, returning managers now are grappling with the consequences of the shutdown: whittling down overstuffed email inboxes, getting behind-schedule projects back on track and taming accumulating backlogs.

“First and foremost, remember that people are going to be very concerned about their pay,” said Thad Juszczak, who was in charge of an IRS budget office during the last major shutdowns in late 1995 and early 1996. As part of the short-term spending bill, Congress also approved back pay for all federal employees who had been furloughed.

While the White House pledged that the money would show up in the next paycheck, agencies such as the Social Security Administration were striving to get workers their overdue compensation as early as this week, according to J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees.

“I think it takes like a week to get back to business,” said Juszczak, now with consultant Grant Thornton.

Procurement staffs must restart contracts stopped during the shutdown. And because the shutdown began at the start of fiscal 2014, it caught agency financial management staff as they were closing out the books on 2013, Juszczak said.

At the Social Security Administration, the almost 1,500 administrative law judges who hear appeals of disability claim denials were deemed essential and kept on the job. But for the first week or so, more than 6,000 support staff were sent home on furloughs, said Randall Frye, a North Carolina judge who serves as president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges union.

Thus, while judges continued to hold hearings, there were no lawyers or paralegals on hand to draft rulings, and claimants had to wait weeks longer to find out how their cases were decided, Frye said. Although SSA administrators eventually brought the support employees back to work, the shutdown added to existing backlogs, Frye said.

There were also broader questions to ponder about the shutdown’s impact on the federal workforce.

“I think it causes a lot of problems for us,” said Jeff Neal, a former federal chief human capital officer. People thinking about retirement will think about it more, while 20-somethings may think twice about embarking on a government career, said Neal, now a senior vice president at ICF International.

For many employees, the shutdown-related furlough came hard on the heels of sequester-related furlough, not to mention a three-year freeze on federal wage scales affecting all of the career workforce. Now, they need to know they are valued, Neal said. Although pleased to see department heads such as Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell personally welcoming back employees last week, Neal added that federal leaders have their work cut out for them in making employees feel appreciated again. .

“Then they are going to have to figure out how to get back to some normal state.”

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