Federal Employees Return To Work

Yesterday Congress brought the country back from the brink of defaulting on its debt. Host Michel Martin talks to Joe Davidson of The Washington Post about how federal workers will bring the government back to life.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now we'd like to check back in with Joe Davidson who writes the column the Federal Diary for the Washington Post. We've been hearing from him about the government shutdown, the effect that it's had on the hundreds of thousands of federal employees both in the Washington, D.C. area and around the country. And he's back with us now from the studios at the Post. Welcome back, Joe. Thanks so much for joining us.

JOE DAVIDSON: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So Congress reached the deal. The president signed the deal. The government is open, but does that mean that things are really back online? Are most of the furloughed employees back at work today?

DAVIDSON: Well, I think they are at least starting to come back. The announcement was made early in the wee hours of the morning, but I'm pretty sure that most federal employees were paying attention to the news and realized what was going on and that the agreement was in the process of being reached. So I do think that most are back today, and certainly, by tomorrow, they should be at full steam.

MARTIN: Is there any particular area where you think we'll see delays or lags in services from people having to get back up to speed?

DAVIDSON: Well, I think that there's probably going to be some backlog and some paperwork in terms of getting approvals for different things that you might need, you know, government permission to do. Certainly, within the parks - they were closed. And I don't live too far from Rock Creek Park, and I know that while the parks now are officially open, the roads weren't going to open right away because they had to go in there and do some maintenance, just cleaning up things.

You know, there was a bout of heavy rains in Washington during the shutdown - some branches fell, those kinds of things. So some kind of maintenance work in some facilities will probably have to be done before things can be fully operational. I think in many cases, though, you know, the government will kind of gear right up. And remember, much of the government remained open, although in kind of a diminished status. So it's not as if everything came to a total halt.

MARTIN: But it's clear that they were not able to process new requests for government service, like, for example, permits. We've heard a lot about, you know, how permits, new applications for certain kinds of programs, all of those were in (unintelligible). I wanted to focus, though, with you on the effect on the employees. We heard in our earlier conversation with regional editors about some of the effects on the public at large. I wanted to drill down now on the effects on employees.

You and your colleagues at the Post have been asking the public, and there's been an online project asking readers to let them know - to tell us how the shutdown has affected their lives. And you got, in just a couple of days, it's, like, 2000 replies. And apparently you said that the shutdown's distress reaches to every corner of the nation and that almost two-thirds said the shutdown affected them daily or threatened their livelihood. Could you give us just a couple of examples?

DAVIDSON: Well, I think, you know, that was a very good project on the part of my colleagues at washingtonpost.com, to reach out and get a feel for the way the shutdown has been affecting people across the country and particularly for federal employees, particularly those at the lower end of the income spectrum. And there are federal employees who do not make much money, you know, contrary to what some think. They were having a very difficult time just trying to make basic ends meet.

There were stories on that - on that online request for comments about people who could no longer afford babysitters, for example. There were stories of people who could no longer afford school supplies or school uniforms because they were really living check to check. And it's also true that a charity that focuses on federal employees, the Federal Employee Education and Assistance Fund ran out of money for their general fund for employees. But this happened even before the shutdown because there were so many requests from federal employees due to the sequester-related furloughs.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I read a couple of the...

DAVIDSON: Sure.

MARTIN: ...samples of the responses that the Washington Post received? Like, this is from Kentucky. I'm a mortgage broker in Kentucky. I work straight commission. I had three USDA mortgage loans scheduled to close, but now they can't due to government shutdown. I need this money to support my family, not to mention the ripple effect of real estate agents, buyers, sellers, title company, insurance. California - my husband and I are both federal law enforcement officers currently working with no pay. We can't survive if the shutdown goes any longer. We had enough to pay some bills this month, but barely enough for food. If it goes on any longer, we'll have to tap into retirement to pay for necessities. I'm looking for another one. It says here - Alaska - 60 percent of Alaska is owned and managed by the federal government.

The shutdown has affected not only government employees, but those who depend on government services, many of whom live in remote areas and are dependent upon those services. Here's one from Arizona. Federal employee, family of five in a single-income family - second time in six months that I am furloughed. This is day 22 of the government shutdown for me, 11 due to sequester, plus 11 plus due to shutdown - considering leaving government work. Which is my question to you, Joe, do you have any sense of whether - the morale effect of this?

DAVIDSON: Well, I think it definitely does hurt the morale, particularly for folks who are considering federal employment. I think it hurts morale across the board. I don't see how it could not. But I think the impact might be seen most clearly on some young people who are considering, or certainly have considered, working for the federal government. And now they see this on top of the sequester, budget cuts on top of three years of a pay freeze. And I was in touch with a number of them this week for a column - and it's not across the board, it varies from individual to individual - but certainly there are some who are now saying, I'm going to look at the private sector or academia because basically, I can't trust the federal government to kind of take care of my career needs. And I think that could be a dangerous situation in terms of recruiting and retaining talent for the federal government.

MARTIN: Well, for example, we heard from one returning employee who works at NASA, which is certainly a highly technical field. One needs - I don't know this particular person's job - particular job - but most of the people who work there have specific technical skills that are highly sought after. This is what this worker had to say.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We're going to be striving to get back on our original schedule, but it's really very disheartening to know how pointless it was to be in the position that we're in today.

MARTIN: Do you have any sense - and I understand that this is difficult to gauge because the tools to measure these things are not always available - but do you have a sense that that's the general perspective? I mean, obviously, you know, we've heard different political points of view, or different points of views depending on political perspective of whether this was a fight worth having or not. Any sense among the federal workforce about that?

DAVIDSON: Well, yeah, I think that there is a feeling among federal workers that they are really kind of like a ping-pong ball being batted back and forth by two paddles, one held by the Democrats and one held by the Republicans. Having said that, though, from my talks with federal employees, I think they clearly tend to blame the Republicans much more than the Democrats for this situation. I think that - but they do feel like they are unnecessarily hurt by a political battle about which they have nothing to do.

They have no control over it. And so many of them are very loyal, probably most of them are very loyal and will continue to work for the federal government, but I think they do resent being on the, you know, kind of being the doormat for members of Congress who can simply use the federal government to advance their political aims, which are not necessarily aims that work to the benefit of the American people and certainly not the federal employees.

MARTIN: Well, one other thing that did emerge is that it appeared that some lawmakers, some elected leaders, didn't really understand exactly what all of them do. I mean, there were a number of incidences where, you know, members of Congress were seen to be berating employees for not really even understanding what their responsibilities were. We only have about a minute left, Joe, but what about their neighbors, what about their friends - do you think that they feel any sense of support from the general public?

DAVIDSON: I think federal employees probably do, although I am, frankly, somewhat worried about that. I think that when you undermine confidence in government, which I think this shutdown has done, I think inevitably, some of that could leak over to federal employees. Having said that, though, I think it's also true that some of the public might now have a better appreciation for federal employees because if they couldn't get some business done that they needed done, they realized that the federal employees are there to serve them and they really do have a strong sense of mission. And so, you know, frankly, it can work both ways. Perhaps there will be some greater appreciation because they now know what federal employees just need - can do for them.

MARTIN: Joe Davidson is a journalist - a columnist at the Washington Post. He writes the Federal Diary column. And he was kind enough to join us from the studios at the Washington Post. Joe Davidson, thanks so much for joining us.

DAVIDSON: Thank you very much.

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