Hundreds of federal workers who officially were deemed “non-essential” trickled away from their phones and file cabinets in Spokane on Tuesday.
Sometimes, they posted specially made notices on their doors to explain their absence.
“Office Closed Due to Government Shutdown” said a notice - repeated in Spanish - on the Immigration and Naturalization Service office in Spokane. “Scheduled appointments only.”
“This office is closed until Congress and the president can reach agreement on the budget,” said a hastily penned note on the U.S. Geological Survey’s map sales office in the downtown post office.
Other times, workers just locked their office doors and left.
All federal workers were told to report to work for their regular shifts Tuesday, but by 9:15 a.m., many were being sent home.
Some quickly donned jackets and walked out. Others lingered a few minutes over computer keyboards and phone consoles or found a place for one last file.
“Mass confusion” was how Dale Scott, operator of the coffee shop in the U.S. Court House, described a morning in which each agency seemed to have a different set of instructions for its workers.
Scott, who is a private contractor rather than a federal employee, has worked in the shop for all but 18 months of the last 28 years. He has weathered several shutdowns due to unresolved budgets.
The previous ones, however, either lasted only a few hours or occurred over holiday weekends and had little effect on business.
The early morning coffee shop crowd joked about the prospects of a Furlough Special for lunch. By 10:30 a.m., with the shop nearly deserted for what is usually prime coffee-break time, Scott asked his cook to lock the doors. They’ll be closed for the duration, he said.
Four floors below, the Internal Revenue Service closed its office. But taxpayers still could find many forms in the lobby rack if they were trying to figure out what to pay the government that can’t yet decide how to spend their money.
Much of the federal machinery continued to grind. The Postal Service, which is a separate entity, delivered and accepted mail. The Bonneville Power Administration - which gets its money from electricity sales, not taxes - kept the juice flowing to small towns, public utility districts and aluminum smelters throughout the Northwest.
Military units throughout Washington remained on duty. As one non-commissioned officer said, only half joking, “they can order us to show up without paying us.”
Several federally based welfare programs such as food stamps, Supplemental Security Income and Aid to Families with Dependent Children were unaffected by the budget deadlock because they are administered by the state.
Gordon Schultz of the Department of Social and Health Services said the federal government sends food stamps and welfare allotments to the states several months in advance.
DSHS continues to process new claims and reapplications, he said.
For Social Security recipients, the shutdown can be a little more confusing. The recording on the agency’s toll-free number says the help line is temporarily closed, then advises callers to contact their local office. But neither the phone book nor the recording give a local number to call.
Gail Whitehouse, district manager, explained that those on the Social Security rolls would continue to receive their payments. But the office, which sent 42 of its 46 workers home Tuesday morning, cannot process new claims while the federal government is partially shut down.
A short-term shutdown probably will not cause problems for most new recipients, Whitehouse added. That’s because retiring workers are asked to file for claims about three months before they become eligible, but processing the claims usually takes only a few days.
Persons with previously scheduled appointments or questions can come to the office at 811 E. Sprague, Whitehouse said. But because of the furloughs, the agency does not have enough staff to handle phone inquiries.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
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