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Government shutdown’s effect muted at Pax River

By NICOLE CLARK

Staff writer

All but about 10 of 2,000 federal employees at the Naval Air Systems Command headquarters were back to work Tuesday after being furloughed last week as a result of the government shutdown, according to spokesman Doug Abbotts.

Employees still waiting to return to Patuxent River Naval Air Station are in job positions that were not immediately ordered back to work by the Department of Defense. They include some auditors, some public affairs officers and some in legislative affairs who work with members of Congress, Abbotts said. Congress allowed the government to shut down Oct. 1, after reaching a stalemate over implementing the Affordable Care Act.

Although most civilian workers are back on the job this week, federal workers at NAVAIR aren’t sure when they will be compensated, Abbotts said. “Back pay may be given to employees, as well as restoration of leave,” he said.

The 2,000 employees furloughed during the government shutdown over the past week were part of NAVAIR’s headquarters and program executive office staff. The command, worldwide, has about 24,000 civilian workers and earlier this year said about 8,000 of them were at Pax River. (Overall, about 20,000 workers — a mix of contractors, military and civilian government employees — are at Pax River.)

Many of Pax River’s workers are in a division that does not receive a direct appropriation from Congress — it’s called a working capital fund. While workers there were not furloughed last week, they earn money by working with others who are funded through Congress. If those customers stop paying for NAWCAD services and a budget solution is not reached, Abbotts said, the working capital fund is at risk of running out of money. Abbotts works for one of those working capital funds, called the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division.

“If you go back six or eight months and we started this whole discussion of furloughing people, it created tremendous angst,” said St. Mary’s County Commissioner Todd Morgan (R), who works for a defense contracting firm. People have gotten used to being scared, he said.

With the fiscal back-and-forth, “There’s not much you can do. Every business in town is stuck right now,” Morgan said.

“I would be a liar if I told you people are out there on a hiring binge right now,” Morgan said, mentioning several companies that had laid off workers. “I’m scared to death. My goal is to grow St. Mary’s County. And, I think the commissioners are in agreement.”

RaNae Contarino, an electrical engineer who left Pax River more than a decade ago and started her own business, said there’s no shortage of challenges, and business owners are all asking the same questions about how to stay afloat.

Contarino, head of R³ Engineering, has decided to push toward strengthening relationships with government leaders who can make decisions about the technology her company is developing. By 2020, most aircraft have to emit signals using Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast, or ADS-B, to identify themselves, where they are, and broadcast the information. Contarino’s company is developing technologies in that area, helping unmanned aircraft prevent collisions.

While small businesses may have had one or two sponsors in the past, Contarino said, “we have to cast our nets further. We have to be persistent.”

As she spoke, she said, one business partner was working with government leadership, another was courting business opportunities abroad, talking about the company’s product offerings.

“You don’t move forward without good engineering,” she said. “So we’re still focused on what technologies will help us make that quantum leap.”

nclark@somdnews.com