Cinnamon rolls and cameras greeted EPA employees Jan. 28 as they returned to work on a chilly morning after a 35-day government shutdown.
Many smiled with gratitude, but very few stopped, fully aware of the workload that has accumulated after five weeks away from their desks.
“It’s a mix of dread and excitement,” Julie, who works in the EPA’s Office of Policy, told Bloomberg Environment about returning to work. The Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t allow most staff to speak to the media, and most didn’t want to provide their full names for concern that it would affect their employment.
President Donald Trump signed a three-week government spending bill Jan. 25 that reopened the EPA, Interior Department, the Agriculture Department, and other agencies while the White House and Congress negotiate a plan to pay for additional security along the U.S.-Mexico border. More than 800,000 federal workers were furloughed or forced to work without pay when the last stopgap spending bill expired last month.
Andrew Wheeler, the agency’s acting administrator, acknowledged the stress of the shutdown in a Jan. 27 email to employees. “I know that the past month has been difficult,” Wheeler said. “Please know that each and every one of you and the work that you do was missed.”
In addition, Wheeler said EPA employees will likely receive their back pay by Jan. 31.
Moms Clean Air Force, an advocacy organization, greeted employees at EPA headquarters in Washington with a big sign with “Welcome Back EPA Heroes” scrawled in markers. Three women and two young children with the group handed out cinnamon rolls to express gratitude to the employees. Under Trump, the EPA has backtracked on many of the regulations and initiatives developed by the Obama administration that critics say are a burden to business.
“We just want to welcome people back to work,” Liz Brandt, a field organizer with the organization, told Bloomberg Environment.
Up and Running in a Week
The first day back after a shutdown is typically when employees catch up and reconnect with their coworkers and wade through hundreds, maybe thousands of emails, said Bob Perciasepe, former EPA deputy administrator, who ran the agency during the 1995 and 2013 shutdowns.
“A week is about what it’ll take to be up and running,” said Perciasepe, now the president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.
The agency is likely to skip over the compliance inspections it was set to perform in the month during the shutdown, Perciasepe said.
“One month, let’s say, is 8 percent of the year, so physically you’re going to miss 8 percent of inspections unless you go faster with inspections and try to catch up,” he said.
The shutdown delayed the release of a national plan on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which have contaminated drinking water systems throughout the country. The EPA was also expected to have begun releasing the names in January of at least 40 chemicals it must prioritize this year.
An EPA employee who works for the Energy Star program in the Office of Air and Radiation said she would need to take work home to meet an approaching deadline in that program.
“I’m a little bit concerned” about the workload, the employee said.
‘A Lot of Backlog’
EPA employees aren’t the only ones eager to get back to work. The livelihoods of hundreds of contractors rest with the agency, which pays for their services and goods.
“There’s a lot of backlog,” one employee who works in the Office of the Chief Financial Officer said. His badge was deactivated during the shutdown, and he couldn’t enter his office until it was reactivated.
The shutdown allowed him to get a lot of housework done, he said, and he was able to spend more time with his dying aunt.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” he said. Others couldn’t wait to get out of the house.
“I’m happy to be back, my husband was getting on my nerves,” an Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance employee said laughing.
But employees are also worried they will be furloughed again if the White House and Congress don’t agree on a border security plan in the next three weeks.
“I’m a little bit scared,” said Julie with the Office of Policy.
—With assistance from Sylvia Carignan, Pat Rizzuto, and Dean Scott.