Huge Backlog Awaits Federal Workers
WASHINGTON (AP) _ A daunting backlog of everything from headstones for veterans’ graves to unprocessed loans and benefit claims will be waiting for federal employees when they return.
Work has been piling up since Dec. 16, when legislation funding nine Cabinet departments and dozens of other agencies ran out, leaving 480,000 employees working without pay and an additional 280,000 civil servants on furlough.
To put the backlog in perspective: Government lost more than 11 million employee hours per week while the workers were absent.
``There’s just going to be an overwhelming amount of catchup that’s got to be done,″ said Janice Lachance, spokeswoman for the Office of Personnel Management.
Many of the workers will find that there’s no work for them to do when they return. Congress called them back to the office but funded only some of the programs they administer.
``In most agencies,″ said House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt, ``they will be going back and be unable to make a long-distance call, unable to get on an airplane to go somewhere to do something, unable to make grants of aid through their departments for their programs because there is no money there to send out the grants.″
Mail has gone unopened, economic data have been left unanalyzed and a striking variety of other work has piled up.
For example, the Veterans Affairs Department has 60,000 headstones to erect at 114 cemeteries across the country.
``We have been burying our veterans, but we have a backlog of headstones,″ said Kathy Jurado, assistant secretary for public affairs.
Also, about 1,100 veterans’ home loan applications have gone unprocessed every day of the shutdown and 409,000 compensation claims are pending, she said.
National parks were to reopen and Park Service employees were expected to return to work to assess winter damage. And there was cleaning up to do at urban parks, including those around national monuments and the White House where trash cans were overflowing.
Officials elsewhere said it would take weeks to work through the backlog _ and longer in programs that Congress decided against funding.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics said that even though workers will be back, key economic figures cannot be released under limitations on spending proposed in the back-to-work legislation.
``Data collecting requires travel, postage for data forms, use of phones to make long distance calls,″ said BLS Commissioner Katharine Abraham. ``If we don’t have authorization to travel, to spend money on postage and phones, we can’t collect the data.″
While the Federal Parent Locator Service will be able to start on 250,000 outstanding requests for leads on the whereabouts of deadbeat parents, there were no funds to clean up Superfund sites.
Other fall out from the shutdown:
_More than 100,000 college loan and grant requests are pending at the Education Department.
_The State Department reported a backlog of more than 200,000 passport applications and even more visa applications from foreigners.
_Drug policy director Lee Brown said 7,500 new police officers across the country would not be able to start their jobs.
_Gallaudet University warned that its elementary and high school program for 550 deaf youngsters would close without federal funding next week. About 65 percent of the university’s budget comes from the government.
The absence of clerical and support staff made it difficult to determine just how far behind Justice Department investigators might be in their paperwork.
``There’s nobody here to determine that,″ said spokesman Carl Stern. ``There is no administrative staff, procurement staff, here to open the letters, the bills, and then add them up. We’re in shutdown.″
The U.S. Geological Survey reported that 29 pallets of mail were waiting to be opened at its national center in Reston, Va. At 200 USGS offices across the country, an estimated 30,000 requests for information on water quality, earthquakes and maps have gone unopened.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration delayed more than 1,440 work-site inspections during the shutdown, Labor Department officials said.
On the upside, the end of a six-day shutdown in November taught Labor staffers how to set priorities when they started up again. ``Because of the last experience,″ said spokesman Scott Sutherland, ``we know ... what piles to go to first when we get back.″