Local federal workers waiting as government shutdown looms

Published 5:01 pm Friday, April 8, 2011

Federal employees at the U.S. Department of Agriculture office in Austin and across the nation on Monday are reporting to work. But they don’t know if they will stay.

At issue is congressional legislation needed to keep the day-to-day operations of federal agencies going through the Sept. 30 end of the budget year. The deadline for a partial government shutdown was midnight as Friday turned to Saturday.

On the brink of a shutdown, the Obama administration readied furlough notices for hundreds of thousands of workers Friday as Republican and Democratic leaders accused each other of refusing to give ground on a deal to keep operations running.

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By midday Friday, most employees of the federal workforce had been told whether they had been deemed essential or would be temporarily laid off from work if lawmakers failed to reach an agreement by midnight. In the event of a shutdown, official furlough notices would begin going out by email, by written letter or in person.

At 4:30 p.m. Friday, 1st District U.S. Rep. Tim Walz’s press secretary Sara Severs said the congressman was in the middle of gathering information about if a potential deal was in the works.

Because of the uncertainty about an agreement, Severs said Walz wanted to wait before speaking on the situation. Once an agreement was reached — or on the contrary if one was not reached — he would issue a statement.

Severs said Walz has done everything in his power to avoid a government shutdown, including voting for two of the Republican-backed short-term budget bills. She noted as of the end of the workday Friday that the issue holding up the federal budget was over access of health care to women.

In the case a shutdown comes to fruition, Severs said Walz proposed an amendment to keep Congress and the president from being paid during a shutdown; however, that bill failed because all of the House Republicans except for one voted against it.

He has also co-sponsored a bipartisan amendment in the House that would ensure troops continue to be paid in the event of a government shutdown.

Severs said the congressman’s office has been fielding many calls from constituents — mainly people wanting to know what services would be unavailable in the case of a shutdown.

Many workers would be allowed into their offices for up to four hours on Monday to finish tasks, but that would be it.

Lee Crawford, the executive director of the Freeborn County offices of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, said he spoke with the regional headquarters in St. Paul on Friday.

Workers will come to the FSA offices Monday and then take further directions at that time.

If a budget compromise is reached on Capitol Hill by Monday morning, it will be another day at work.

“Because something could happen over the weekend if we are up and running again,” Crawford said.

If a compromise is not reached by Monday, workers will await directions on the next steps, such as whether to shut down the computers and computer servers, to hang a message on the door saying the place is closed and to contact news media, he said.

The Natural Resources Conservation Agency is a separate USDA agency but shares the same office, as it does in many counties. Its director in Albert Lea reports having similar steps as the Farm Service Agency.

The Freeborn County Soil and Water Conservation District is its own form of local government but happens to share space at the USDA offices, which are at 1400 W. Main Street near the Albert Lea Seed House and Farmers State Bank.

While the Soil and Water Conservation District workers are not federal employees, it remains to be seen whether their door will be open to the public Monday.

Social Security checks will still come, but don’t expect any other services as Social Security employees are non-essential, and therefore wouldn’t be at work. Social security administration workers in Austin and Rochester couldn’t comment on the government shutdown, and a call to the regional public relations office in Chicago went unanswered.

Most likely, Social Security workers, too, would come to work Monday to find out whether they can open the office doors to the public.

Click here to read what functions would be closed or open.