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Furloughs Lifted for Some Maine Workers, but Another Wave Could be Coming
10/07/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

Today, almost 2,000 Maine civilian military employees were back on the job, nearly a week after being furloughed due to the federal government shutdown. While the return to work is good news, the shutdown isn't over, and it could bring another wave of furloughs for other federally-funded workers in the state. Patty Wight reports.

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Fifteen hundred civilian workers at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard were sent home last week. On Monday, all of them returned, including an employee named Andrew, who wouldn't give his last name. He says he's glad to go to back to work, but less happy about the status of his paycheck.

"Oh, I'm not getting paid till they - Congress - gets their head out of their butts," Andrew says.

The return to the shipyard came after a nation-wide order this weekend from U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, based on a new law that exempts furloughs for employees whose work directly supports the military. Though shipyard employee Karen Adams avoided the furlough, she too will not get paid until the shutdown is over.

"It's out of my hands, so you just come to work and you hope that it works out well," she says. "I have a second income. I'm fortunate. I know a lot of people who don't have a second income, so for them, I feel bad."

Maine National Guard spokesperson Maj. Michael Steinbuchel also expressed limited enthusiasm for the news. Steinbuchel says all but 16 of the 406 Maine National Guard soldiers and airmen also furloughed last week are back at work.

"While this is good news that we've had a number of our employees return, it still does not appear to fix the overall problem," he says.

Steinbuchel says 44 employees in Maine's Department of Defense, Veterans, and Emergency Management remain on furlough, and training is suspended for most of Maine's National Guard soldiers and airmen. Steinbuchel says the National Guard can't even restock supplies - from basic office needs like printer toner and ink, to critical purchases, such as petroleum and fuel.

"We do not have any funds for our operational and maintenance funds," Steinbuchels says. "So what this means is once the supplies on the shelf run out, they run out. So it's a very challenging time for us here in the Maine National Guard."

It's also a challenging time for federally-funded state employees, who face the uncertainty of future furloughs. Maine State Employees Association spokesperson Mary Anne Turowski says, though she doesn't know how many employees would be temporarily laid off if the shutdown continues, "we do know that there are thousands of positions that are federally-funded, or partially federally-funded," she says. "The Department of Labor is 97 percent funded by the feds."

Gov. Paul LePage's office is working closely with the Maine State Employees Association, says LePage spokesperson Adrienne Bennett, to minimize the impact of the shutdown on employees, and give as much notice as possible if additional furloughs are needed.

Though the state gets daily - if not hourly - updates from the federal government, says Bennet, the situation is complicated. "We have to, department by department, and bureau by bureau, figure out who receives what funding, how much we have left, and what is the best approach moving forward," she says.

Even the federal courts are feeling the pinch of the shutdown, says Maine U.S. District Court Clerk Christa Berry. Still reeling from a reduced staff due to sequestration cuts, Berry says some cases may be delayed because civil litigators are on furlough.

"For people to have to work without a paycheck is a problem," Berry says. "And for those furloughed, there's a real morale problem for us. I think there's a lot of consternation about what's happening. So while cases will go forward, it doesn't mean that this is an ideal situation, by any stretch."

Berry says the court is working hard to prevent a bottleneck of cases, but has little more than a week until it will have to cut back its operations.


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