CHICAGO (AP) _ Federal employees who had been out of work for weeks while the government was shut down began returning to work Monday _ weather permitting.

Along the East Coast, many government workers were idled by a huge blizzard that paralyzed the nation's capital. In the rest of the country, federal workers struggled to dig themselves out from under a blizzard of paperwork caused by the three-week lull.

Mail was stacked at least 4 feet high when Buddy Sexton returned to work as the assistant mail room supervisor at the Housing and Urban Development office in Phoenix.

By 11 a.m., Sexton still had 5,000-plus pieces of mail to sort.

``It's going to take the rest of this week just to get caught up,'' he said.

In Chicago, harried federal workers struggled to deal with hundreds of nervous people who had been waiting weeks during the partial shutdown to apply for passports.

With the wait estimated at four hours, the State Department office resembled a campground. Passport-seekers carried water, lunch sacks and magazines. One man periodically exclaimed, ``Vote the Congress out!''

Adam Pflueger, in need of a passport to attend his brother's wedding in Tokyo next week, was prepared to wait all day.

``Either I wait here or I stay at home and miss the wedding,'' said Pflueger. ``I'm going to stay here, sing `Kumbaya' and make lots of new friends.''

Michael Merritt, a clothes buyer for Marshall Field & Co., the department store, was hoping to obtain a passport in time to fly to Italy on Tuesday to see the designers show their fall collections.

He got the assignment one day after the partial shutdown began.

``I'll be so disappointed if I don't get to go,'' he said. ``It's not like we didn't know there would have to be a budget.''

The budget battle has forced two partial federal government shutdowns, for six days in November and for three weeks through this weekend.

President Clinton on Saturday ended the latest shutdown of federal programs when he met Republican demands and offered a seven-year balanced budget plan.

But the temporary government spending measure approved by Congress expires on Jan. 26. If there's no budget agreement by then, some federal offices could close for a third time.

Newell Howard, a claims representative with the Veterans Affairs Department in Portland, Ore., said this second furlough was especially hard because of the timing.

``It was the worst Christmas we've ever had. We didn't buy anything,'' Howard said.

Howard said the time off was no vacation for federal workers who were worried about meeting mortgage payments and feeding their families. Finding a temporary job was impossible, he said, because he couldn't predict how long he'd be available.

``I heard a poll on a radio station that said 65 percent thought we shouldn't get any back pay,'' Howard said. ``You know, I'm trying to pay my bills, trying to pay my rent.''

At the George Washington Carver National Monument near Diamond, Mo., visitors were waiting Monday morning for the birthplace of the black scientist and educator to open.

``We were joking that everyone wants to get in and see it before we have to close down again,'' said Lana Henry, a park ranger.