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Federal Workers Snowed Under In Paperwork But East Coast Blizzard Has Cut Off Help To Northwest Agencies

Furloughed federal workers around the Northwest returned Monday to a blizzard of mail, phone messages, unfilled orders and deadlines - only to confront a new problem.

A blizzard in Washington, D.C., kept many of their superiors off the job and unable to answer questions about the effects of back-to-work legislation approved over the weekend.

The federal government has money for paychecks. But it doesn’t necessarily have all the money for normal operations or for anything new.

“We just can’t buy a whole heck of a lot,” said Cynthia Reichelt, public information officer for the Colville National Forest.

Tree-planting contracts, planned for next week, may be delayed. Environmental impact reports needed for future timber sales are behind schedule.

U.S. Geological Survey workers were busy checking stream-flow monitors which were untended for three weeks. Hydrologist Brett Smith said questions about temporary employees and travel went unanswered Monday because of the blizzard.

The Bureau of Mines, scheduled to go out of existence Monday, has at least a two-week reprieve. Its 75 employees in Spokane worked through the furlough period to prepare for the shutdown.

Many of the managers in Washington, D.C., did not. Neither did the staffs in other agencies that might be receiving decades’ worth of bureau records.

“We know what we’d like to do” with equipment and data, said Rod Rosenkranz, deputy chief of the bureau’s Western Field Operations Center in Spokane.

“But we have not been given the OK to do it.”

That approval requires people to be on the job in Washington.

The Social Security office is advising people there will be an undetermined delay in issuing new numbers.

The process normally takes about two weeks, and Spokane manager Gail Whitehead said it’s uncertain how much added delay the furloughs will cause.

Although the Spokane office was open during the shutdown, the applications are processed in Baltimore.

That office has been closed since Dec. 16 and didn’t reopen Monday because of the snow.

“We’re kind of taking it in stride and wondering what’s going to happen next,” Whitehead said.

, DataTimes