Treasure Coast federal employees return to work after shutdown amid 'air of positivity'

Mary Helen Moore
Treasure Coast Newspapers
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Federal employees across the Treasure Coast eagerly returned to work Monday as the government reopened after five long weeks, most expecting to finally get paid by Friday.

"I sense an air of positivity, a lot of folks who are really excited to get back to work," said Ken Warren, spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service field office in Vero Beach.

Furloughed federal workers and many who worked through the stalemate missed two paychecks during the 35-day shutdown, the longest closure in U.S. history.

A temporary measure funding the government for three weeks was passed Friday night, though President Donald Trump warned another shutdown was possible Feb. 15 if Congress doesn't agree to fund a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said almost all federal workers would be given back pay before the week's end.

More:'Alleluia! ... Time to go back to work': Federal employees return Monday, will get back pay

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Warren said of the 50 or so Fish and Wildlife employees working in Vero Beach, all but one was furloughed. The lone employee at the office had a court-ordered deadline with which she had to comply.

Reed and Mary Jane DeVault, of Winter Park, walk along the boardwalk of the Centennial Trail on Monday, Jan. 28, 2019 at Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Indian River County. Monday was the first day refuge staff were able to come back to work after the 35-day federal government shutdown, the longest in U.S. history.

The Vero Beach office's primary function is to provide biological opinions and assistance so that developers or government agencies undertaking construction know the potential impact on federally listed species, such as Florida panthers, sea turtles and scrub-jays.

The agency serves 26,000 square miles in South Florida, from the Orlando area to the Everglades.

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Their work was halted during the shutdown, so Warren said everybody was going through checklists to ensure they were focused on what needs prioritizing.

"Obviously after five weeks of not being able to check your email or voicemail … everybody's kind of playing catch-up," Warren said.

Employees are reconnecting not just with their duties, but also with their co-workers and clients, some of whom haven't spoken since the shutdown began Dec. 22. 

Tracy Boothby, environmental educator at the Hobe Sound Nature Center, shows off a six month old American alligator to interested visitors Monday, Jan. 28, 2019, at the Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge's center in Hobe Sound. Throughout the 35-day government shutdown, employees continued to care for the nature center's animals six days a week.

Warren said he was grateful for the local businesses that offered free meals. He said the Democrats of Indian River County had a food drive for his colleagues in need of groceries.

As for that lost pay?

"We expect to get that by the end of this week," Warren said.

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Parks back to normal

The trails in both of the Treasure Coast's national wildlife refuges remained open to the public during the shutdown.

"I'm very happy to be back and happy to see all my co-workers again and surprised by how many visitors we've already had this morning," said Christine Eastwick, who manages Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge in Martin County. "It's good to just be back in the routine of things."

Restrooms and the visitors center were closed at the refuge, where there is only one other employee. The remainder of the staff are volunteers.

Jeremy Carr, a full-time volunteer with the Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge, cleans a bench that was damaged by graffiti during the 35-day government shutdown on the first day back to work for federal workers Monday, Jan. 28, 2019, at the Hobe Sound Nature Center in Hobe Sound.

Eastwick said she was fortunate to have savings to carry her through.

"It was tough when your hands are kind of tied," she said.

Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge canceled some tours and delayed mowing and landscaping, but kept restrooms open thanks to its partnership with Indian River County. There are six employees. 

Bill Miller, who manages the refuge, said no damage was sustained during the shutdown, as was reported in Joshua Tree National Park and the Everglades.

"We think we’re in good shape," Miller said.

More:Many Treasure Coast federal offices open despite shutdown

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TSA staff kept working

There are 30 Federal Aviation Administration employees working across the Treasure Coast: 15 in Vero Beach and 15 in Fort Pierce.

The Vero Beach Regional Airport has the region's only Transportation Security Administration checkpoint, which employs eight people.

Bill Rogers, of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, scans the waterways for birds on the Centennial Trail on Monday, Jan. 28, 2019 at Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Indian River County. Monday marked the first day that refuge staff returned to work after the 35-day federal government shutdown.

"They all did a great job," airport Manager Eric Menger said. "They continued to work and there was nary a complaint."

A person who answered the phone at the Treasure Coast International Airport air traffic control tower said they haven't yet heard when they will be paid, aside from what's been reported in the news.

The federal courthouse in Fort Pierce also managed to stay open throughout the shutdown, despite initial estimates that funding would only last until Jan. 11.

Judiciary employees were paid throughout the shutdown; and district courts remained operational by deferring some costs and using court filing fees and other sources of funding, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

They held off on making new hires, non-essential travel and committing to certain contracts.

If another shutdown were to occur, cases (other than civil cases involving federal agencies) would continue to go to trial.

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The Coast Guard was the only military branch whose employees were not paid. Its budget falls under the Department of Homeland Security, while the rest of the military is funded by the Department of Defense.

The commanding officer for the Fort Pierce station did not reply to messages left for him Monday.

Food and Nutrition Service benefits, including food stamps, were not interrupted despite some uncertainty had the shutdown lingered into February or March.

Social Security checks, including disability payments, were sent out during the shutdown, though some services may have been delayed. Veterans Affairs Administration services were not interrupted, as the agency is fully funded for 2019.

Staff writer Will Greenlee contributed to this article. 

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