Karen Ochsner spent the past week in an empty store, periodically checking freezer temperatures to ensure that the Hill Air Force Base Commissary didn’t sustain any more losses than it had to.
Perishables were loaded back into the main freezer. Some things — milk, eggs — were thrown out. But while most goods were salvageable, there will likely be no recovering the lost staff hours of Ochsner’s crew, whom she had to tell to go home last Tuesday.
"It’s heartbreaking," Ochsner said. "A lot of people live from paycheck to paycheck and have children and home mortgages. You just have to listen to the complaints and worries, and at the end of the day, you give them a big hug."
On Monday, the commissary workers were back on the job, along with nearly 4,300 other defense employees across Utah, though there is no promise any of them will be paid.
At Hill Air Force Base, all 2,700 furloughed workers were ordered to return to duty within 24 hours. Of 1,200 employees furloughed in the Utah National Guard, all but 80 federally reimbursed state employees were told to report. And 425 of 476 shutdown-affected employees clocked in at U.S. Army’s Dugway Proving Ground, with the remaining 51 due in tomorrow.
The mass return comes after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a Saturday news release that he had directed departments to order back employees who contributed to "the morale, well-being, capabilities and readiness of service members." Active-duty military are exempt from the furloughs.
Lt. Col. Hank McIntire of the Utah National Guard said employees were told to be essentially on call and ready for work. "It’s been fairly smooth," he said. "Obviously, people are pleased to be able to come back."
There is still a question of whether the employees returning to work Monday will be paid retroactively — a matter for Congress to decide. A bill to provide back pay for federal employees passed the House unanimously Saturday and was applauded by President Barack Obama. The Senate may act on the measure this week.
Hill Air Force Base is Utah’s largest employer, with more than 20,000 military, civilians and contractors. According to a release from the base, it has an economic impact of $3 billion annually. Many services, like the Base Exchange, have remained open throughout the partial government shutdown, but others, such as the commissary, base pool, library and others had shuttered. Ochsner said that while there’s nothing she can do, she understands the frustration about the commissary closure — the reduced prices are "their right and they’ve earned that right," she said.
Tony Valdez, a union representative for the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1592, said Monday was bittersweet. Sure, people are returning to work, but they can’t be certain yet that they’ll be paid. Valdez, who has been at Hill Air Force Base since 1996, says morale is "still pretty low," particularly after the base’s civilians were forced to take six furlough days earlier this year as a result of sequestration.
"This is just kicking the can down the road," Valdez said. "There’s no end in sight."
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