As federal employees return to work, uncertainty looms

jself@thestate.comOctober 17, 2013 

— Federal employees across South Carolina returned to work Thursday – signaling the end of the 16-day partial shutdown of the federal government that sent them home without pay.

Some, considered critical, were asked to continue working through the shutdown, brought about Oct. 1 when the U.S. Congress failed to reach a deal to fund the government.

About 30 percent of the 590 employees working at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs regional office in Columbia returned to work from furloughs. Their building off of Garners Ferry Road where they offer veterans services reopened after closing for part of the shutdown.

Internal Revenue Service employees – about 86 percent of roughly 235 workers in S.C. – also returned to work Thursday, said Mark Green, an IRS spokesman.

Federal contract companies performing work at the Savannah River Site nuclear cleanup facility in Aiken avoided more furloughs that were planned for Thursday. About 300 U.S. Department of Energy employees remained on the job through the shutdown, but two contract companies performing cleanup and security announced furloughs for about 1,670 employees combined. The site will resume normal operations Monday, a spokesman said.

Also open for business are South Carolina’s national parks, monuments and historic sites including Congaree National Park in Lower Richland, Fort Sumter in Charleston and Kings Mountain National Military Park near Blacksburg. The National Park Service employs about 100 people in the state, according to a database maintained by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. During the shutdown, national parks closed and most employees were furloughed.

South Carolina’s military communities also are returning to normal, representatives of those communities said Thursday at a S.C. Military Task Force meeting in Columbia.

But how long that normalcy lasts is unclear, as the U.S. Congress approaches another round of budget and debt deadlines early next year, they added.

“Hopefully we weathered the storm, but it may just be for a month or two,” said Retired Maj. Gen. George Goldsmith, who represents Columbia on the task force.

Late Wednesday, Congress struck a deal to fund the government through Jan. 15, putting off another debate over the nation’s borrowing limit until mid-February.

In the deal, Congress averted a potential default on its debt and ended a 16-day partial federal government shutdown.

In South Carolina, thousands of federal employees, including civilian defense workers, were sent home during the shutdown. Federal offices across the state opened Thursday. People replaced phone messages that told callers that services had come to a halt.

The impact of the shutdown will continue as agencies ramp up operations.

For example, the state’s monthly unemployment outlook, slated for release next week, will be delayed because of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ closure, the S.C. Department of Employment announced Thursday.

S.C. National Guard members who were furloughed should receive retroactive pay in their next pay cycle, spokeswoman Maj. Cindi King said.

“Everybody’s being made whole,” S.C. Adjutant Gen. Bob Livingston, the S.C. National Guard’s Republican leader, said at the Task Force meeting. “But it’s just the chaos that that creates and the anxiety that it creates in the people that is more destructive than anything.”

Though relieved the shutdown is over, military representatives on the Task Force said they worry that the federal across-the-board spending cuts, including to defense, could continue next year and beyond.

Livingston encouraged South Carolina’s congressional leaders to find a more “systematic approach” to addressing the national debt.

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