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Government Workers Must Get The Wheel Turning Again


OK, with the government funding and debt ceiling deal now reached, passed and signed, government agencies are set to reopen. But don't expect all federal offices to take your calls just yet. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

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

SAMANTHA HANSEN: It's not just like flipping a switch and getting the system running. There's a lot of cogs in the machine, so to speak.

NAYLOR: Hansen and her team deployed 15 seismic monitors in an area called the Transantarctic Mountains, hoping to learn more about how they were formed. Her team now needs to go down there and check the monitors, but even when funding resumes, it won't be simple.

HANSEN: They sent everybody else home, and right now, there just isn't the people in the infrastructure there to get science off the ground. So they'd have to kind of bring all of those people back in, get things up and running, get, you know, planes and other equipment down there.

NAYLOR: Hansen's work is perhaps a bit more exotic than most of what the government does on a daily basis. But her story isn't that much different from what a typical government staffer now faces: how to get the wheels turning again. First is the issue of how to even find out if you're supposed to come back to work. Jessica Clement is with the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association.

JESSICA CLEMENT: Everyone has BlackBerrys now, right? Everyone works on their phone all the time. Your iPhones are constantly connected. If you're a furloughed employee, you had to leave those at the door. You can't check your BlackBerry. So it's not like your, you know, your manager who's non-excepted and has been working through the furlough can email you and say, hey, time to come back to work.

NAYLOR: Lee Stone is a researcher at NASA's Ames Research Center.

LEE STONE: This is almost amusingly silly, because NASA, of course, is shut down, and so its websites are shut down and its email is shut down.

NAYLOR: Stone says NASA employees have been given a special number they're supposed to call twice a day to find out if the government is operating again, and if they should return to work. Supervisors at some agencies will be using phone trees to call employees or sending emails to their personal email accounts. Government employee unions will also spread the word on their websites. Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, says she thinks most offices will be understanding when it comes to getting their workers back on the job.

COLLEEN KELLEY: More than anything, most agencies that I've talked to recognize that employees have really been through an unbelievable, you know, number of weeks here, and through no fault of their own. And so I think they are looking to, you know, try to make this as easy a transition as possible.

NAYLOR: Kelley predicts a hectic first day back on the job at most agencies. Stone, the NASA researcher, says more like hectic first couple of weeks.

STONE: 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.

NAYLOR: Possibly the only thing more disheartening would be to have to go through all this again when the temporary funding bill expires in January. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.


In the Arkansas River Valley, farmer Robert Stobaugh(ph) is also worried about the backlog created by the government shutdown. He's busy harvesting rice and soybeans. The timing of that work is crucial, and the timing is off, because he's been waiting on approval from federal inspectors who have been furloughed. Stobaugh says the end of the shutdown doesn't mean his wait is over.

ROBERT STOBAUGH: Well, it's just going to mess up the timing of it all. You know, we'll have to get in line behind everybody else that's in the same situation that we are. You know, they're going to have all this backlog of work that they have not been able to do because they've been on furlough. And, you know, when you're working within the confines of Mother Nature in the farming business, sometimes she's not all that cooperative.

MONTAGNE: That's farmer Robert Stobaugh, in the Arkansas River Valley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.