That’s the bizarre situation in which scores of local federal workers found themselves during the 16-day government shutdown that ended last week.
Furloughed since Oct. 1, government employees returned to work Thursday with a mixture of thankfulness to be back on duty and frustration about the lost time.
“We’re happy to be back, we’re relieved and now we’re just hoping to be fully operational as soon as possible,” said Sarah Beckwith, a regional spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management in Worland. Beckwith said Friday that the agency is prioritizing the work on which it fell behind.
“Political beliefs aside, this isn’t anything that anyone on the forest wanted to happen,” said Shoshone National Forest spokeswoman Kristie Salzmann.
Lee Craig of Powell, the executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Park County Farm Service Agency, noted federal employees like himself will receive back pay for the time they were furloughed. Craig said he wouldn’t blame the general public for being “livid.”
“I’m still going to get paid and I did not put in any time — and that’s not fair to the public and I don’t feel good about it,” he said. “And I don’t know any other federal employee that I work with that does feel good about that.”
“It’s embarrassing,” said Rory Karhu, the District Conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Powell. He said the pay for the missed time goes against his character and feelings as a taxpayer.
“I would have gladly worked without knowing whether we would get pay for it than get paid afterwards having not worked,” Karhu said.
Of course, federal employees didn’t have that choice — with federal law barring them from even volunteering their time.
Hundreds of state of Wyoming employees in federally funded positions — including at least a half-dozen workers in Powell and Cody — were not as fortunate as full-fledged federal employees and will not receive back pay for time on furlough. That includes two Department of Family Services workers in Powell, said Ed Heimer of Cody, the district manager for the department.
“Those folks had to either take their annual leave, if they had any, or just didn’t get paid,” Heimer said.
It wasn’t exactly a vacation, either. Employees needed to stay ready to return to work with little advance notice. Federal workers said they kept a close eye on Congress.
“We just didn’t know,” said Beckwith, of the BLM. “It seemed like at times it (a restart) was getting close and then, no, we were told it wasn’t happening.”
“I cleaned my home a lot, spent some quality time with my dog and sat by the phone and was waiting, watching the news, trying to keep up to date to see when I might be able to come back to work,” said Salzmann, of the Shoshone.
Craig spent the time catching up with work at his own farm. Two people asked Craig if he wanted to work for them during the shutdown, but “the bad part about this kind of a thing is you can’t ever commit to anyone who needs a commitment because we didn’t know from day-to-day if we’d be going back to work,” he said.
If there is a silver lining, perhaps it’s what Karhu has noticed:
“It does make you feel a little more blessed to be back on the job,” he said.
The budget deal approved by Congress last week provides funding only until Jan. 15, at which point a new budget will be needed to avert another shutdown.