WASHINGTON – Maryland’s 130,000 federal workers have been left in limbo as Congress wrangles over the budget, with agencies unable to hire or enact new programs that were slated to take effect Oct. 1.
And with the budget more than a month late already, another continuing resolution before Congress could push back final passage of the 2001 fiscal budget for at least the next two weeks.
“It’s going to have a huge impact on our department and preparing American workers for the new economy,” said Howard Waddell, a spokesman for the Department of Labor. “It couldn’t have come at a worse time.”
While few agencies claimed to have suffered as much as Labor, several officials said if a budget is not approved soon, problems could escalate quickly.
“Once it goes further in the fiscal year, it becomes more difficult to plan ahead when there are significant budget changes,” said Greg Gagne, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. “All the agencies will tell you that. . .it becomes more difficult to do things in an orderly way.”
Officials from the Social Security Administration, the Health and Human Services Department and the Office of Personnel Management all said they have not made long-term plans to deal with the continuing resolutions. While they have not had to cut anything, they are also barred from adding any already- approved projects.
But for many federal officials, the inability to pass a budget is simply an annoyance, since fears of a federal government shutdown seem to have been averted for the moment.
“If the rest of us couldn’t get our jobs done on time, we would either lose our jobs or be considered sluggards,” said Judy Park, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Retired Federal Employees.
Union officials also lamented the budget delays.
“They (federal workers) don’t think it will impact them right now,” said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. “Now, that will all change if a shutdown takes the place of the continuing resolutions.”
Four years ago, stalled budget negotiations deteriorated into a lengthy government shutdown that left about 750,000 government workers either furloughed or working without pay for almost three weeks. The fear that it might happen again, while remote, has apparently begun to concern some federal workers.
“The phone calls we are getting from federal employees are expressing concern over the time it’s taking to complete the appropriations process,” said Louise Wynn, an editor for Federal Employees News Digest.
The region benefits handsomely from federal employment, with more than 334,000 jobs in the Washington area, and 130,889 in Maryland alone. Maryland had the largest increase of federal jobs in the nation from 1996 to 1998, adding 5,625 civilian jobs during that time, according to the Office of Personnel Management.
Diane Witiak, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Government Employees, put the blame for the budget delay squarely on Congress.
“They’re stuck in the middle of an issue they created themselves,” she said. “That’s not something the workers want.”
“Federal workers find it very frustrating, (the politicians) make them feel like pawns in a game,” she said.