Federal workers are relieved — and wary
A big sigh of relief — for now.
That was the reaction among federal workers, after President Trump announced Friday that he would agree to reopen the government and end a partial shutdown that left 800,000 air-traffic controllers, FBI agents, IRS claims processors, and others unpaid or furloughed for more than a month.
For those with little or no income, the prospect of returning to work and receiving back pay felt like a burden lifted. Yet that relief was tempered by a gnawing fear that the government will be shuttered again after Feb. 15 if new negotiations on border security do not produce a wall to satisfy the president.
Trump has agreed only to a three-week reprieve.
“There’s obviously a lot of trepidation,” said Gary Karibian, union president at the IRS center in Andover, where hundreds of workers have been sent home or asked to work without pay as tax season heats up.
“They’re at the point where they’re thinking, ‘We won’t believe it until we see it,’ ” Karibian said. “There is some concern that it is a three-week deal, and that we will be going through this again.”
On Cape Cod, similar worries emerged from a nonprofit group that has been delivering hundreds of thousands of pounds of free food to unpaid Coast Guard members and their families throughout New England.
“I’m not letting my guard down. I’m going to make sure we don’t come out of operational mode until that thing is signed and permanently done,” said Don Cox, president of the Massachusetts Military Support Foundation. “In three weeks, what’s to prevent him from doing this again?”
Cox said that the foundation had delivered more than 200,000 pounds of food to the Coast Guard just this week, and that he would continue business as usual.
“I don’t want to pull this down and put it back together again,” Cox said.
The deal to reopen the government came just hours after the shutdown’s most noticeable impact yet: a brief halt to landings at LaGuardia International Airport in New York that caused airport delays along the East Coast. The Federal Aviation Administration blamed staff shortages on high rates of sick days for air-traffic controllers who have not been paid during the shutdown.
Senator Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, said the air-traffic slowdown proved pivotal in ending the shutdown, at least temporarily.
“It was only when the cumulative effect of the shutdown began to ground our nation’s aviation system to a halt that President Trump decided to take into account the pain and suffering of hundreds of thousands of federal workers and the families who rely upon them,” Markey said.
Paul Hudson, president of the passenger advocacy group Flyers Rights, was not surprised that a deal came so soon after high-profile problems.
“It would clearly put more pressure on the government — the president and the Congress — to compromise,” he said.
Logan Airport mostly avoided major issues throughout the 35-day shutdown, although several flights to and from LaGuardia on Friday were delayed.
Joseph Tate, 30, of Atlanta, faced a delay in his afternoon flight to LaGuardia. At first, he was surprised because the weather looked fine. But then he discovered the reason.
“That’s the art of negotiating with President Trump,” Tate said. “He’s trying to play a little hardball, but he’s affecting a lot of people’s lives as well.”
John Hansman, an aeronautics professor at MIT, said air-traffic issues probably would have worsened if the shutdown persisted. Rather than risk safety, officials typically slow air traffic during events like storms or, in this case, staffing shortages, he said.
“There’s a ripple effect throughout the system. When you get delays, airplanes don’t get to their destination. Now the airplane and the crew aren’t able to get to their downstream flight,” Hansman said.
The North American chapter of the Airports Council International, a trade group representing port authorities, said it was glad the shutdown was temporarily over, but officials there worried that the same issues might resurface in a few weeks.
The organization “strongly urges them to reach a long-term deal that ensures the dedicated federal workers who make our air transportation system run are paid so that our air transportation system is restored to its full capability,” the group said.
Representative Richard Neal, a Springfield Democrat who is chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said he was pleased a compromise had been reached over a “needless shutdown” that “went on 35 days longer than necessary.”
“The national economy has suffered and the American people have been denied essential government services during a shutdown they did not want," Neal said. “I will continue to work with my colleagues in a bipartisan and bicameral manner to find an agreement that’s permanent and includes a frank discussion about border security.”
At the IRS, union chief Karibian said he will urge employees to return to their jobs Monday. Karibian estimated that hundreds who work in customer service — the front lines for taxpayers with questions — had been granted hardship leaves after being called to work without pay as tax season approached.
“They could not put gas in their cars, or they could not pay for day care and had to take care of their own kids, or they had to pay their mortgage and take another job,” said Karibian, president of Chapter 68 of the National Treasury Employees Union. “I had employees telling me it was a ghost town. At some point, you just can’t work for free.”
Karibian, who had been furloughed and has two young children, said he expects IRS workers to be reimbursed quickly.
“I don’t have all the details right now, but my guess is that the government is going to do right by the employees,” said Karibian, adding that the workers can no longer claim a hardship under the contract. “They’re excited that they can get back to work, do their jobs, and get paid.”