- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Many federal workers at Patuxent River Naval Air Station came into work for a short time Tuesday.
They may have read a letter from the president that said how much they mean to him, that Congress has failed, and “none of this is fair to you.” They may have read an email from Vice Adm. David Dunaway, who heads the Naval Air Systems Command, saying he was “deeply disappointed” in political leaders who had failed to reach a budget. “I hope to see you back at work soon,” he wrote.
Then, they left their jobs for an indefinite amount of time and with an indefinite lapse in pay.
Congress allowed the federal government to shut down at midnight Monday and a veil of frustration settled over quarreling lawmakers who have long been unable to pass a budget. They had come to rely on temporary agreements, called continuing resolutions. But Monday night, they failed to agree even on a Band-Aid fix as House Republicans looked for ways to defund the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, and a Democratic Senate vowed to keep the law intact.
This is the second time federal defense workers have been told to stay home without pay this calendar year. The first time, they lost 20 percent of their pay for six weeks, in a controversial attempt by Congress to trim government spending known as sequestration.
Nearly 80 percent of St. Mary’s economy depends on what happens inside Pax River’s gates, so the shutdown has a ripple effect. The federal workers themselves face uncertainty about mortgages and car notes, college loans and utility bills, none of which have been shut down as paychecks are trimmed.
“Our people are dedicated and resilient, but this instability creates challenges for which we are preparing,” said Capt. Ben Shevchuk, Pax River’s commanding officer.
Military personnel will continue normal duty at Pax River and elsewhere. Some Department of Defense civilian workers who support critical efforts — including military operations and emergency services, medical care, logistics, contracting, legal, and education and training — will also continue working. But, only the minimum number needed will be excepted from the furlough tied to the shutdown.
At NAVAIR, which is largely comprised of engineering and technical support workers, the majority of workers are set to be furloughed, said spokeswoman Amy Behrman. Approximately 2,000 people will be affected. Some workers who are paid differently (through working capital funds) may continue to work, as long as there are enough customer orders to support their efforts, and that money had not been halted by the shutdown.
Contractors were allowed to work as long as funding was available for their tasks, but needed to make arrangements for where that would be if they were typically on site with government counterparts.
In a phone call Monday afternoon, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th), had remained hopeful that a shutdown wouldn’t occur. “It is an irrational act,” he said. About 800,000 workers would be furloughed nationwide, including about 62,000 in Hoyer’s 5th District, which includes St. Mary’s, Charles, Calvert and parts of Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties.
Republicans have been “obsessively focused” to the detriment of the economy, on repealing the Affordable Care Act, Hoyer said. Republicans say Obamacare is a bad bill that could cripple business owners nationwide.
If federal workers lose pay in the congressional tussle, Hoyer said he was hopeful the money would be restored to workers retroactively when the budget battle is resolved. “We certainly should make sure that nobody loses their income,” he said.
Despite the uncertainty, economist Russell Rhine thinks St. Mary’s County’s fiscal forecast, overall, is favorable. “If you look across Maryland and you look across the country, we have a relatively low unemployment rate and a relatively high income,” said Rhine, chair of the economics department at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
There’s one thing to watch over time, he said. “Uncertainty does stifle economic behavior.” And if people are wondering whether they’ll keep their jobs, or if their paychecks will be cut, they’ll stop spending in area businesses.
“But with the economy recovering slowly, I suspect everyone would receive their full pay” when the shutdown ends, Rhine said, adding that Congress would likely restore it retroactively, the way it did during a government shutdown 17 years ago. “There are a lot of places around this country that are hurting,” Rhine said. But, so far he said, “the county is doing well.”
It might be hard for some to see it that way now. By deadline Tuesday, workers at Pax River had been given about four hours to receive and acknowledge receipt of their furlough letters.
Employees are expected to monitor media outlets and return to work once an agreement is reached, Behrman said. If resolution occurs during duty hours, employees would be expected to report to duty that same day. If it occurs during non-duty hours, employees would report to work on their next regular duty day.
“This unfortunate situation will have ripple effects throughout NAVAIR, our programs and the fleet,” Dunaway said in a message to his workers. “At the center of this churn are hard-working professionals, dedicated to serving our military, already stressed by a year of financial uncertainty — both at work and at home.
“We all hope this gets resolved quickly,” Dunaway said. “In the meantime, be proud of your dedicated service to our nation and know that you are appreciated and respected by those who matter most — the fleet.”