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Federal Workers Head Back To Jobs As Government Reopens

A furloughed federal worker protests outside the U.S. Capitol last week, demanding an end to the shutdown.
Win McNamee
Getty Images
A furloughed federal worker protests outside the U.S. Capitol last week, demanding an end to the shutdown.

Hundreds of thousands of federal workers on furlough for two weeks are going back to work after Congress approved a late-night deal Wednesday to fund the government and stave off default.

"Now that the bill has passed the United States Senate and the House of Representatives, the president plans to sign it tonight and employees should expect to return to work in the morning," Sylvia Mathews Burwell, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said in a statement late Wednesday. She told employees to check the Office of Personnel Management's website for updates.

A government notice issued Oct. 1 at the beginning of the shutdown advised furloughed employees that once funding was restored, "You will be expected to return to work on your next regular duty day."

But the House didn't pass the continuing resolution until after 10 p.m. ET Wednesday. The short notice means that getting back to work might not be a seamless process for many federal employees.

Colleen Kelley, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, the largest federal employee union, tells The Wall Street Journalthat many workers who took their children out of day care in the past few weeks will need to arrange care again before they can return to work. She said agencies vary in their methods for recalling workers.

"Some set up a 1-800 hotline for workers to call during the shutdown to check on the status of their employment. Others use the phone tree method of calling individual workers. Tens of thousands of federal workers do not have personal computers and would not be able to check OPM's website, Ms. Kelley said."

And as NPR's Brian Naylor reports on Morning Edition, you shouldn't expect the Internal Revenue Service, the Environmental Protection Agency or most other federal offices to be taking calls just yet — it could be some time, he says, before most agencies get up to speed again.

Even government-funded research projects are going to need time to ramp up.

University of Alabama geologist Samantha Hansen has been conducting a research project in Antarctica that in one way is like almost everything else funded by the federal government: After 16 days down, it's going to take some time to restart.

"It's not just like flipping a switch. [In] getting the system running, there's a lot of cogs in the machine," she says.

Naylor says that while Hansen's work is a bit more exotic than most of what the government does on a daily basis, her story isn't that much different from what a typical government staffer now faces: how to get the wheels turning again.

"Everyone works on their phone all the time," Jessica Klement, with the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, tells NPR. "Your iPhone is constantly connected, [but] if you're a furloughed employee, you have to leave those at the door."

So workers might not get the word immediately, Clement said.

Lee Stone, a researcher at NASA's Ames Research Center in California, says "this is almost amusingly silly — NASA is shut down and so its website is shut down and email shut down."

As CNN notes in the past couple of weeks, there have been "hiccups" when federal workers were recalled.

But the good news for workers is that Congress made sure the employees will get paid for the 16 days they were out.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.

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