Thousands Of Region’s Federal Workers Sent Home


Thousands of federal workers in Hampton Roads were sent home without pay Tuesday as Congress remained mired in a stalemate that shut down portions of the U.S. government.

The most visible and essential government agencies, particularly those related to public health, safety and national security, were largely unaffected by the impasse. Sailors still reported for duty, postal workers continued to deliver the mail, federal judges and prosecutors were in court, and air traffic controllers remained on the job.

Still, about half of the region’s 35,000 civilian defense workers received furlough notices and were sent home early.

“Closed for business” signs were hung at numerous government offices in the Norfolk Federal Building and the World Trade Center downtown.

Orange barricades were set up at the historic Colonial Parkway between Va. 199 in James City County and Jamestown, and gates were swung shut at the Great Dismal Swamp and Back Bay national wildlife refuges.

Service members, retirees and their families swamped the region’s commissaries, seeking to stock their pantries a day before the military-run grocery stores were shuttered indefinitely. More than 100,000 Hampton Roads residents and their families are eligible to shop at commissaries, where military families can buy inexpensive groceries tax-free.

Robert Adams, a 26-year-old bagger at the Norfolk Naval Station Commissary, hadn’t paid attention to the fight in Congress and learned only Tuesday morning that he would soon be out of work. Commissaries remained open a day after the shutdown to clear shelves of perishable goods. Workers were told they wouldn’t be paid for the day’s work until Congress votes to fund the government.

“I still have to pay my bills,” said Adams, who has worked for tips at the commissary since he was 16. “It’s going to be hard to actually do that now.”

The wife of a retired sailor stopped pushing her shopping cart when she overheard Adams’ comment.

“Oh, no, I’m so sorry,” she said. “It’s my husband’s opinion they need to throw everybody out of Congress and just start all over again.”

That sentiment may have been shared by many of the 3,600 civilian workers sent home early from Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth. Nearly half of the shipyard’s civilian workforce is being furloughed, said Jeff Cunningham, a spokesman.

For much of the Navy, it was business as usual. Fighter jets will continue to fly at Oceana Naval Air Station, and ships that had been scheduled to depart from Norfolk Naval Station for training off the coast of Virginia will still sail, said Lt. Reann Mommsen, a spokeswoman for U.S. Fleet Forces Command. Any services deemed essential to supporting active-duty sailors, including child-care centers and base gyms, will remain open, Mommsen said.

Service members will be paid throughout the shutdown, but they could see a delay in receiving health care at military clinics because of administrative furloughs, said Beth Baker, a civilian spokeswoman for the Navy’s Mid-Atlantic Region. A short time later, Baker set an out-of-the-office email alert and began her own furlough.

Citizens might have trouble obtaining public records for a period; many public-affairs officials and Freedom of Information Act lawyers were sent home Tuesday and ordered not to respond to requests for information.

Angelo Costa, regional director for the Occupational Health and Safety Administration said someone will be in the agency’s downtown Norfolk office during the shutdown in case of an emergency.

They’ll answer the phone but won’t do much else, Costa said. “We’re not allowed to work.”

Anyone calling with safety complaints that aren’t life-threatening will be told the office is closed, he said. “If they want to know when you’ll be open, you have to tell them, ‘I don’t know,’” he said.

City officials in South Hampton Roads said they don’t expect any immediate impact from the federal shutdown. But if the budget standoff continues, it could interfere with needed federal grants or other aid, they said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Norfolk district office is using money from last year’s budget to delay sweeping furloughs, spokesman Mark Haviland said. But if the shutdown continues into next week, he said, the office will be forced to furlough its regulatory department, a move that could delay public projects, including plans to build a new, tolled U.S. 460.

The Virginia Department of Transportation submitted its permit application to the corps on Monday, said Aubrey Layne, chairman of the Route 460 Funding Corporation of Virginia, the nonprofit set up by the state to finance the project.

Although a shutdown of a week or two probably would not affect the highway’s timeline much, Layne said, “longer than that, it could certainly have an impact.”

Pilot writer Dave Forster contributed to this report.

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