BISMARCK, N.D. _ A majority of North Dakota’s Defense Department employees joined hundreds of thousands in returning to work this week following a weekend Pentagon announcement reinstating them.
Fewer than 10 of the nearly 500 North Dakota National Guard members furloughed last week will remain out of work by Tuesday, said Billie Jo Lorius, public affairs officer for the Guard.
“We are conducting a phased recall of necessary employees,” Lorius said. “It’s definitely good news that they’re back to work (but) we’re a long ways from business as usual.”
Lorius said the statewide payroll cost of the shutdown for furloughed military technicians in North Dakota was approximately $104,000 per day.
The return of furloughed staff follows a Saturday announcement by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. His statement said the vast majority of the 350,000 civilian employees ordered home when the shutdown began could return this week.
Members of Congress had urged the department to review the language in the Pay Our Military Act, a law passed prior to last week’s federal government shutdown.
Hagel said further review of the law showed the department had the authority to bring a large number of staff back to maintain military readiness.
“I expect us to be able to significantly reduce — but not eliminate — civilian furloughs under this process,” Hagel said in his statement.
Among those not returning to work include workers who perform audits, are involved in government and public affairs.
Lorius said the Guard won’t be at its peak level of effectiveness without having all staff back to work.
Other major concerns during the shutdown are funding for operations and whether or not all furloughed staff will receive back pay, she said.
On Saturday, the House also voted unanimously to approve back pay for all furloughed federal employees. Whether the Democratic majority in the Senate follows suit was unknown as of Monday.
Last week’s Guard furloughs impacted about 40 percent of its 1,260 full-time staff.
Nationwide the shutdown caused approximately 800,000 federal employees to be sent home.
The shutdown, now entering its second week, began over a budget impasse between the White House and Congress. House Republicans have tried to tie President Barack Obama’s federal health care law to the budget.
The White House has refused to budge on negotiating on the funding or implementation of the law. It has demanded a “clean” budget bill be passed without any conditions prior to negotiating the budget.
Don Canton, a spokesman for Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said Defense employees never should have been furloughed. Canton said that was why Hoeven was among those who urged Hagel to review the matter.
Canton said Hoeven also supports the House bill to provide back pay to furloughed members.
“Hopefully the decisions made over the weekend will help resolve the impasse. Republicans and Democrats both need to come together on solutions that will fund government and address the debt ceiling,” Canton said.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said she heard some discussions on the House vote from the weekend and that a vote may be possible on back pay later this week.
Heitkamp said she didn’t see the weekend’s events as being a major turning point.
“What I think is going to get the ball moving is … pass a clean CR (continuing resolution) and get to the negotiating table,” Heitkamp said. “This isn’t the way to heal a recovering economy.”
She said the process needs to stop being impeded by what she called “the most extreme members of the House of Representatives.”
Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said he was grateful the Defense Department came around and brought a number of furloughed employees back to work.
The House vote was the right decision and the Senate needs to follow suit, Cramer said.
“It’s the right vote,” Cramer said. It’s not anybody’s fault other than both houses of the Congress and the White House’s that we’re in this situation.”
Cramer added that Saturday’s vote was one of several that could bring thousands of employees back to work. He said the issue of back pay would provide peace of mind to employees and opening shuttered agencies would restore certainty to the public that they’re serious about addressing the situation.
“That shifts the discussion of areas of common ground. I just wish like heck we could get some Senate Democrats to get Harry Reid to schedule some votes,” Cramer said.