The IRS is one agency where workers face a backlog after the shutdown.

The IRS is one agency where workers face a backlog after the shutdown. Mark Van Scyoc /

Feds Dig Out From 35 Days’ Worth of Piled-Up Work

IRS, Census and science agency employees bemoan shutdown’s long-term impact.

Unanswered emails, outdated websites and un-processed grant correspondence greeted hundreds of thousands of federal employees on Monday morning as they returned from the 35-day partial government shutdown.

In Government Executive interviews, employees seemed fully aware that the lost productivity—to say nothing of their own financial hardships—will affect work lives far into the future.

“It’s going to be horrendous,” said Thomas Burger, executive director of the Professional Managers Association and retired from the audits division of the Internal Revenue Service. “Everyone’s worried about when they will they look at those cases that were dropped on Dec. 21,” their last day before the appropriations lapse. They have been wondering, he said, whether all the W-2 and 1099 taxpayer forms were issued. “Hopefully people were monitoring them and [estimated quarterly income] checks were coming in” and people were keeping track of which statutes are expiring, he said.

The 2017 tax cut still being implemented contained “the biggest tax law changes since 1986,” Burger noted, citing hundreds of forms that need revisions, including capital gains and depreciation forms that must go out to the tax service industry. “In a good year when we were fully staffed and budgeted, this would be a monumental task,” he said. “But the budget has been slashed, and we lost 27,000 employees.”

Even though much of the tax agency’s information technology staff was working, “they’re stretched thin,” he said. So the usual expectation that tax return processors can “flip a switch” and begin the annual process is jeopardized by the new tax law and the shutdown.  “And without work and two paychecks, the sad stories are coming,” said Burger, whose employee association, like others, must cope with a skipped automatic deduction dues payment caused by the shutdown. “How long it will take for morale to recover? I don’t want to even venture a guess.”

At the Census Bureau, the 35 days of idleness “will impact economic statistics for years,” said an employee via email, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We were in the middle of reviewing data for the 2017 Economic Census (published every five years).  It’s important to get the census data clean, as it affects the sample surveys mailed out at the end of each of the intervening years. Not being able to review the reported data will set back the entire processing cycle (data collection, micro-review, imputation of delinquents and non-mails, macro-review and publication),” he said.

 “Lord knows when we’ll be able to begin the review of the 2018 data for areas that have annual surveys in order to get ready for the mailout of the 2019 sample surveys at the end of this year,” he said a day before President Trump and congressional leaders announced a temporary end to the shutdown. “I’m not sure what will be done to catch up.” (Preparations for the constitutionally mandated decennial population census have remained funded.)

Agencies that fund or perform scientific research are likely to feel the shutdown’s ill effects not just on Monday but gradually over time. Because the National Science Foundation was largely shuttered, “American scientists have lost out on more than 400 grants valued at over $139.2 million,” according to a statement and tally by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. So far this year, 84 grant-funding review panels have been canceled, and will now have to be rescheduled.

NSF had 1,397 staff furloughed and 72 excepted and working, according to David Verardo, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 3403 at NSF. In one week in January, he told Government Executive, 19 grant merit review panels scheduled to review 486 research proposals were canceled. The following week saw cancellation of 48 panels slated to review 656 proposals.

“For every week of a shutdown, conservatively, it backs up our process by about four weeks,” Verardo said. “That’s on top of having not gotten a full budget on Oct. 1, though we got a few dollars in the continuing resolution.”

But those canceled panels are simply the new proposals, he cautioned. Every year, people who do grant research “have to file an annual report to be read and approved by program directors, so unless your report was in and approved before Dec. 22, you didn’t get approval and didn’t get your money.”

Psychologically, staff being forced to stay home or work without pay “up to certain point can roll with things,” Verardo said. “But no one can roll with an extended shutdown, especially with president saying this could go on for years--an astounding statement.”

And over the long haul, the shutdown could discourage recruitment among young people “looking at science as a career,” he added. The younger generation people already “know that they’re not likely to have the same job for 20-30 years. But now they’re wondering whether they can even get a job doing research, given the few tenure-tracks jobs” available on campuses, he added. “It’s one of the unanticipated consequences” created by the “people who set these forces in motion.”

“The thought of returning to my work email after such a long time away … is rather daunting,” said an employee at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who spoke before reporting to work Monday on condition of anonymity. “The first order of business will be to see if I'm even able to log into my computer and email system without IT help desk assistance. I'm guessing all my account passwords are starting to expire. Once I'm into my email, I'm expecting there will be hundreds if not thousands of messages waiting,” which might take several days to respond to, he said.

“I'll probably try to find constituent requests for assistance first and address those as quickly as possible,” the employee continued. “I probably also have questions from some of the contractors that work with me regarding projects they were working on that will need immediate attention.”

But compared with the alternative of continued (or renewed) shutdown? The NOAA staffer said, “I'll appreciate going back to the office.”