‘I love it and I have passion for it’: Federal Employees On Returning to Work

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After the 35-day shutdown, which left some 800,000 federal employees furloughed or required to work without pay, these employees celebrate a return to something akin to business as usual.

Jon Freeman, a 38-year-old squad leader for the Great Smoky Wildland Fire Module of the National Park Service (NPS), spent the month of January posted up in a hammock on the beach in the Florida Keys, waiting for the government to reopen. He lived in his camper van and taught scuba lessons occasionally when he could get the work. But mostly, he was stuck waiting, feeling like he was on a tight leash that could tug him back to Great Smoky Mountains National Park at any moment.

Kassie Karssen, a 26-year-old wildlife biologist who has been with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in southeast Indiana for four years, spent the shutdown unpacking boxes in her new home while her husband, who’s an engineer, worked 60 hours a week or more to make sure they could pay their bills. Karssen said she had to sign paperwork at the start of the shutdown agreeing to stay away from all USFWS property and equipment until further notice, which was agonizing for the recent hire, who worked as a fellow and intern for the USFWS for three years before transitioning to full-time last summer.

“I worked so hard to get to this position,” she said. “This is the whole reason I pursued my masters. ... It’s been my biggest motivator.”

Dave Santucci, a park guide for the National Park Service in Boston, said he went to the YMCA every day during the government shutdown, to keep himself occupied. He put together two 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles, read many books, made homemade pasta and bread, played video games, and worked a temporary job to help pay the bills. The wait to go back to work felt like living on standby, he said. In an interview on January 24, he told the Co-op Journal, “We can't really go anywhere, so we must stay close to work as one never knows when the government will reopen.”

Then, on January 25, President Trump announced a short-term deal to reopen the government for three weeks, until February 15, putting an end to the longest shutdown in U.S. history. In the blink of an eye, Karssen, Santucci, Freeman and their fellow federal public lands employees were headed back to work.

Upon hearing the news, Freeman hopped into his van and drove 16 hours in one weekend, from the Florida Keys to the Great Smoky Mountains. Karssen said she ran around her house joyously, collecting her keys, tools and uniform parts in anticipation of her first day back at work on Monday. Santucci said he typically works weekends, so he received a call from his supervisor on Saturday morning, just a day after President Trump’s announcement, telling him that he could return to work that afternoon.

For all three employees, the return to business as usual has been a mixed experience due to the volume of work that accumulated while they were away. Freeman, a career wildland firefighter, said he used a voice-to-text application to make a very long to-do list during his drive. When he showed up to work on Monday, he was excited to meet the group of seasonal firefighters who had been waiting to start their new gig since December 23, 2018. According to Freeman, the seasonal employees on his team spent January sitting at home without paychecks; most completed long drives from places like Arizona and California when they heard that the government had reopened. But when Freeman reached his computer on Monday, he received a notice from his supervisors saying that the seasonal workers on his team couldn’t start work until next week, on February 4, further delaying the start of an already shortened season.

Freeman and his peers use this time of year to schedule prescribed burns, which the NPS uses to reduce fuel for wildfires, among other management efforts. Now, he says the squad is behind. “We’ll be trying to do six weeks to two months of work in about two weeks,” Freeman said. He also worries about the seasonal workers, who will be massively behind on training. He said his squad needs to be ready to respond to emergency fires, but they can’t do that until they complete their prescribed burns.

“It’s not like we flipped a switch and everything is back,” he said. “Everyone is behind, even admin, IT and [human resources]. It could be days or weeks before they get to our requests. Everyone is behind the curve and it’s not just like we’re good again; it’s going to take some time.”

As she headed back to work at Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge on Monday, Karssen’s worries centered around hiring and training. She said her small team typically brings on several interns to help reach their work goals; but with the shutdown in place, her hired interns had been waiting unpaid for more than a month. As a fairly new employee herself, Karssen worries that she’s missed essential trainings that are typically only offered once a year.

“I need to coordinate and get my interns to the refuges,” she said, talking about her first-week-back to-do list. “I have prescribed fire plans to look over and administer, seeds that need to be distributed, boundaries that need to have signs posted, habitats that need to have some restoration work done, and I’m sure after a month there are roadways that need to be cleared and general maintenance that needs to be done … after all the meetings and conference calls on Monday.”

Karssen said she’s most afraid of another shutdown. After three weeks of work, she’s concerned that she could end up in the same situation come February 15, when the funding expires.

Santucci was more optimistic about his return to work on Saturday. “I was wicked excited to be going back to work,” he said. “As we walked together to our visitor center, people looked at us and smiled. We were greeted by a sign from [one of our partner organizations] on our office door. Many visitors told us they were so happy we were back and thanked us.”

It wasn’t a completely happy reception, though. Santucci said he faces a month’s worth of unanswered emails, voicemails and school trip reservations. He needs to recreate staffing schedules and rebuild partnerships. He’s also worried about hiring, given that the winter is a critical time for recruiting seasonal summer staff and many of the hiring deadlines have now passed.

Emily Noyd, a seasonal worker for the National Park Service who was most recently a wilderness ranger at Yosemite National Park, said seasonal workers are especially worried about the impacts of the shutdown on summer hiring, which typically occurs between Christmas and President’s Day.

“Even if it runs as smoothly as possible, the inherent red tape can be challenging for hiring officials to post jobs, get lists of candidates from local [human resources] offices, and hire for the upcoming season. My job, for example, should have been posted this past month to be ready in time for an April start date,” she explained.

Per legislation passed earlier this month, all full-time furloughed Department of Interior employees will receive back pay for the five weeks of the shutdown. The three federal workers who spoke with the Co-op Journal said they took steps to ease the financial burden during the 35-day period when they went without pay. Santucci’s husband is a school teacher and Santucci took a temporary job to try to keep their accounts running smoothly. While Freeman said he has a good amount of money in savings and was collecting unemployment during the shutdown, he was also living out of his van in order to keep expenses low. And after a recent move, a home purchase and a masters program graduation, Karssen, too, was deeply worried about keeping her family afloat while she was furloughed.

But a love of public lands kept Freeman, Karssen and Santucci eager to return to work despite financial difficulties. Karssen said being kept away from her work felt torturous because she’s been working toward this job for most of her adult life. She was dedicated to waiting out this shutdown and is prepared to weather future storms, even if it’s hard on her family and her finances. For Freeman, too, there’s no way he’d consider abandoning his federal position for work in the private sector.

“No way I can walk away,” Freeman said. “My goal is to do this work. I love it and I have passion for it, and I’m buying into the fact that we’re doing good work.”

To support the national parks following the government shutdown, make a donation or register your intent to volunteer for a clean-up effort with the National Park Foundation. You can also contact land managers and their nonprofit partners to determine the best way to give back to your favorite public lands.


Editor's note: All interview subjects for this story spoke to the Co-op Journal as independent American citizens, not as representatives of their respective government agencies.

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