Federal workers return to paperwork, storm damage – promise of pay - Omaha.com
Published Thursday, October 17, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 2:58 am
Federal workers return to paperwork, storm damage – promise of pay

Around the Midlands and across the country, federal office doors were unlocked, barriers were carried away and entrance gates lifted at federal memorials and National Park Service sites.

Thousands of furloughed federal workers returned to work Thursday after 16 days off the job after the partial federal shutdown was ended.

Some workers confronted backlogs of email and paperwork. Others voiced concern that a still-gridlocked Congress would cause another shutdown in January, when the short-term bill passed to keep government running expires.

“I got an early taste of retirement, and I'm not sure I like it,'' said Mike George, state supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Grand Island.

His office conducts Endangered Species Act reviews of everything from federal bridge and highway projects to placement of emergency sirens in communities. A dozen project reviews were held up during the shutdown.

At the National Park Service's Midwest Region office in Omaha, regional director Mike Reynolds was so delighted to be back at work he was willing to act as a doorman.

“Good morning. Welcome back,'' Reynolds said, as he held open the building's front door for numerous federal workers. “Glad to see you.''

About 175 workers at the Omaha parks office were furloughed, he said, although four workers remained on duty through the partial shutdown.

In Washington, the Capitol's visitor center resumed tours, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum reopened and the Smithsonian — overseer of many of Washington's major museums — proclaimed on Twitter: “We're back from the #shutdown!” The National Zoo rushed to get its popular panda webcam back online Thursday but planned to reopen its grounds today.

The barricades and yellow caution tape were gone from the World War II Memorial.

Tourists from across the country and the globe strolled around the sprawling site in the middle of the National Mall.

“Hey, welcome back,” one woman told the park ranger sharing information about the memorial with visitors.

“Thanks,” he said, smiling.

At the Homestead National Monument in Beatrice, Neb., officials returned to find some facilities damaged by a thunderstorm.

Homestead officials spent Thursday assessing the storm damage and beginning to prepare the facility for winter — something they would have been doing over the past 16 days.

“But the important thing is, we're the National Park Service. The last part of our name is service, and we're excited about being here today,” said Mark Engler, superintendent of Homestead.

He estimated that 3,000 people would have visited the monument during the partial shutdown, including school groups.

At federal courthouses in Nebraska, officials were breathing sighs of relief. The shutdown ended in the nick of time.

Federal courthouses had enough money to continue operating normally through today. After that, jurors would have been asked to serve without being compensated for their expenses, and federal employees wouldn't have had the guarantee of a timely paycheck.

“I hope never to see this situation again,” said U.S. District Court Judge Laurie Smith Camp in Omaha. “It was stressful for everyone within the court system.

Nebraska's 71 Farm Service Agency offices and dozens of other conservation and rural development offices reopened. Farmers, bankers and others rely on the agency to process agricultural loan repayments.

Dan Steinkruger, the Farm Service Agency's state executive director in Lincoln, said it will take a bit of time for the U.S. Department of Agriculture agencies to resume full operations, as computer systems come back online and employees catch up on their work.

Steinkruger said $65 million to $70 million in government rental payments to Nebraska landowners and farmers who enrolled land in the Conservation Reserve Program will now be mailed, probably next week. The annual payments typically are mailed in early October.

“People making land payments, rental payments or other expenses who rely on that income have had to wait for those payments,'' Steinkruger said.

The DeSoto, Crescent Lake and Valentine National Wildlife Refuges in Nebraska reopened for hunters to catch the migratory waterfowl seasons. The agency's waterfowl production areas in south-central Nebraska reopened last week for hunters under a special order.

Closed campgrounds operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also reopened.

National Guard forces on both sides of the Missouri River are gearing back up for normal operations.

In Iowa, five federal National Guard technicians and 117 workers funded with a mix of state and federal money returned to work Thursday.

Originally, about 1,000 federally funded Iowa National Guard workers were furloughed, but nearly all returned to work Oct. 7 after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recalled most Defense Department employees. The 117 state/federal workers were furloughed only since Oct. 11, said Master Sgt. Duff McFadden, an Iowa Guard spokesman.

In Nebraska, all but three of 560 furloughed National Guard workers had returned before Thursday, said Maj. Kevin Hynes, a spokesman.

Seventy employees had just returned Wednesday. Ten newly hired workers whose start dates were delayed by the shutdown also began work Thursday.

In both states, weekend drills scheduled for October already had been postponed. Hynes said drills probably won't resume until November because contractors need to be hired to provide food and other support.

The postponed drills will be rescheduled during the coming year, so soldiers and airmen eventually will get their lost pay, he said.

“It took four hours to shut down (the government) when the furlough started, but the impacts are going to be felt considerably longer than that,” Hynes said. “When you come back from a shutdown, you can't just start everything back up all at once.”

The first order of business Thursday at the Park Service office in Omaha? Raising Old Glory and the Interior Department flag outside the riverfront office just south of the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge.

“It's good to be back,'' Park Ranger Nichole McHenry said as she hoisted the flags.

World-Herald staff writers Kevin Cole, Joseph Morton, Jay Withrow and Steve Liewer contributed to this report.

Federal works return to Zorinsky building

Elsewhere in Omaha, employees for the Internal Revenue Service, General Services Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could be seen returning to work Thursday at the Edward Zorinsky Federal Building, 1616 Capitol Ave.

About 1,200 federal workers are employed in the building named for the Sen. Edward Zorinsky, a former Omaha mayor and U.S. senator from Nebraska.

Men and women carrying cardboard boxes filled with personal items politely referred all questions to the public affairs office.

One woman who confirmed she was an IRS employee was asked if she was happy to be going back to work.

“Yes, thank God,” she said.

Federal courthouses return at just the right time

At the federal courthouses in Nebraska, officials were breathing a sigh of relief. The end of the shutdown came in the nick of time.

Federal courthouses had enough money to continue operating normally through Friday. After that, jurors would have been asked to serve without being compensated for their expenses, and federal employees would have been asked to continue to work without a guarantee of a timely paycheck.

"I hope never to see this situation again," said U.S. District Court Judge Laurie Smith Campbell in Omaha. "It was stressful for everyone within the court system. It took a lot of time and energy, to prepare, for the event of a shutdown."

Also back: Nebraska's Farm Service Agency

Nebraska's 71 Farm Service Agency offices and dozens of other conservation and rural development offices reopened.

"All of our employees are excited to be back at work,'' said Dan Steinkruger, the Farm Service Agency's state executive director in Lincoln.

Farmers, bankers and others rely on the agency to process agricultural loan repayments. Steinkruger said it will take a bit of time for the U.S. Department of Agriculture agencies to resume full operations, as computer systems come back on line and employees tackle a backload of work.

Steinkruger said $65 to $70 million in government rental payments to Nebraska landowners and farmers who enrolled land in the Conservation Reserve Program will now be mailed. The annual payments typically are mailed in early October.

"People making land payments, rental payments or other expenses who rely on that income have had to wait for those payments,'' Steinkruger said. "Hopefully those will get started next week.''

Army Corps offices open across Midwest

Army Corps of Engineers regulatory offices in Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, North Dakota and Montana reopened after closing Tuesday for lack of federal funding.

The regulatory offices work with wetlands and navigable water issues. They are under the wing of the Omaha District headquarters in Omaha.

"We were not impacted greatly (by the partial shutdown),'' said Kevin Quinn, a corps spokesman in Omaha. "Unexpired federal funds kept us running but the money was going to run out.''

Closed corps campgrounds also reopened.

Management of six big dams above Omaha on the Missouri River was not interrupted by the shutdown.

Returning to suspended work in Grand Island

A stack of about a dozen suspended projects greeted Mike George of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Grand Island, Neb., when he returned to work Thursday.

George is the agency's state supervisor.

"I got an early taste of retirement, and I'm not sure I like it,'' George said.

The service conducts Endangered Species Act reviews of everything from federal bridge and highway projects to placement of emergency sirens in communities.

"In the absence of our review, a lot of projects just stop work, even if they have a permit in hand,'' George said.

George said it will take time for the office to catch up on its workload. Reviews normally completed in 30 days will be delayed, he said.

DeSoto, Crescent and Valentine National Wildlife Refuges in Nebraska reopened for hunters to catch the migratory waterfowl seasons. The agency's waterfowl production areas in south-central Nebraska re-opened last week for hunters under a special order.

"Hunters can safely plan their car trips to the refuges,'' George said.

More than 40 federal agency employees across Nebraska were furloughed during the shutdown.

Beatrice employees say hello to damaged facilities

At one national monument in Beatrice, Neb., officials returned to find some government facilities damaged from a thunderstorm.

Officials at Homestead National Monument were busy Thursday trying to assess the storm damage and prepare the facility for the coming winter months – something they would have been doing the last 16 days.

"But the important thing is, we're the National Park Service. The last part of our name is service, and we're excited about being here today," said Mark Engler, superintendent of Homestead National Monument.

He estimated 3,000 people would have visited the monument during the shutdown, including school groups.

Omaha's VA Hospital remained open

Will Ackerman, the public affairs officer at the VA Hospital in Omaha, said all medical facilities and clinics remained open during the shutdown.

“Other pieces such as veteran's benefits and cemetery operations were not,'' he said, “but they are now.”

World-Herald staff writers Robynn Tysver, Steve Liewer and David Hendee contributed to this report.

Contact the writer: David Hendee

david.hendee@owh.com    |   402-444-1127

David covers a variety of news across Nebraska, particularly natural resources and rural issues and the State Game and Parks Commission.

Contact the writer: Robynn Tysver

robynn.tysver@owh.com    |   402-444-1309    |  

Robynn is Omaha.com's elections writer. She's covered presidential politics in Iowa's caucuses, and gubernatorial and Senate races in Nebraska.

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