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News / Clark County News

USGS employees faced with 35-day backlog after shutdown

Workers at Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver glad to be back on the job, but fearful it may be short-lived

By Calley Hair, Columbian staff writer
Published: January 28, 2019, 9:00pm
5 Photos
Seismologist Wes Thelen monitors data readouts in the operations room at the U.S. Geological Survey Cascades Volcano Observatory on Monday. Thelen worked part time without pay during the 35-day partial federal government shutdown, tracking seismic activity on Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier.
Seismologist Wes Thelen monitors data readouts in the operations room at the U.S. Geological Survey Cascades Volcano Observatory on Monday. Thelen worked part time without pay during the 35-day partial federal government shutdown, tracking seismic activity on Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

When the news broke Friday that the 35-day partial federal government shutdown had temporarily halted, employees at the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver readied themselves for a fresh set of challenges.

Sean Ericson, a systems administrator, riffed on Monday that he’d spent the last few hours — his first back at work since Dec. 21 — just trying to remember a bunch of passwords.

Sam Tunes, administrative officer for the observatory, scrambled to find day care for his 2-year-old child — Tunes’ wife had gone back to work when the shutdown started, and now his stint as a stay-at-home dad had come to an abrupt and unexpected end.

Arlene Sondergaard, a lab technician and one-woman operation who measures the sediment level in samples from bodies of water across the country, was up against an overwhelmingly backlogged work queue.

Wes Thelen, a seismologist, had been coming to work part time and unpaid during the shutdown to monitor seismic activity around Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier. Now, he’s a month behind in preparing for the busy summer season.

All told, the shutdown threw a huge wrench into the observatory’s operations. Still, morale was up on Monday, Tunes said. It’s a close-knit staff, and workers were glad to be collaborating under the same roof again.

“We’re all just happy to be back. There’s a very strong spirit of camaraderie,” he said.

But some employees also expressed frustration. They were returning to a huge pile of leftover work, and they face the same deadlines and restrictions on their mid- and long-term projects.

“How frustrating, that there is still going to be a certain level of expectation to get all this stuff done, and we just have 35 days less to do it all,” Tunes said.

Federal workers are also facing a potential repeat performance in less than three weeks.

The deal struck in Washington, D.C., to reopen the federal government and free up the backlogged paychecks of 800,000 furloughed and unpaid workers was less of a treaty and more of a cease-fire. If a permanent solution isn’t reached by Feb. 15, the shutdown will resume.

Now, as federal workers try to mop up the consequences of the first furlough, the countdown to another potential shutdown looms large.

“I think it’s a little bit daunting at this point, but all you can do is put your head down and start working,” Tunes said.

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Back to work

The observatory building employs about 80 people, with an additional 200 who work with the volcano science center as a whole. For the last five weeks, they were operating on a skeleton crew of around 20, Tunes said, and nobody was getting paid.

The employees are certainly looking forward to their paychecks. They’re set to receive their first on Wednesday, which correlates to the earliest missed pay period, and their second on Friday. Those will feature rough amounts — instead of measuring taxes and deductions down to the penny, workers will just get around 85 percent of their full wages. That formula just gets the checks out the door faster, Tunes said.

A third paycheck, which connects to the current pay period, will be distributed on a normal schedule and adjusted to correct for any small discrepancies in the first two checks. When all is said and done, employees should get full back pay.

This isn’t the first shutdown weathered by Thelen, who was working at an observatory in Hawaii when workers were furloughed for 16 days in 2013. But it doesn’t get any less disappointing, he said.

“When we go through things like shutdowns, it is hard on the morale of the people who are exempt, (and) who aren’t exempt,” Thelen said. “It sets people up to interpret their job as being more or less important than somebody else’s. There’s just no need for that, because it’s not true.”

During a shutdown, essential employees are limited in what they can legally do at work. Thelen was allowed to track real-time seismic data and keep an eye out for any anomalies. But his long-term, nonemergency projects and collaborations with universities and other researchers suffered.

“A month is a big chunk of time to be missing out of your year,” Thelen said.

Field season, or the time when crews can actually reach the monitoring stations and perform any maintenance or upgrades, starts in late spring. Usually January would be the time when Thelen would have been training new personnel and performing a “post-mortem” on any inefficiencies from the year prior.

This year, he said, they’re a month behind.

“It’s definitely a delicate dance that we do. We really require this time to get set up so we can be as efficient as we can during summer, because the last thing we want to be doing when it’s bright and sunny and good weather outside is spending our time in the lab.”

He’s also caught up in the awkward timing of the moment. Sandwiched between the damage of the past shutdown and a potential one in the future, there’s a limit to what Thelen can realistically plan for.

“Reading the tea leaves is hard at this point,” he said. “We’re not really scheduling anything for the end of February, because we don’t know. We don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Across the building in Sondergaard’s lab, stacks and stacks of coolers are filled with untested water samples.

She read the label from a handful — they came from Idaho, Utah, Hawaii. Using a meticulous, standardized process, Sondergaard tests the sediment levels in water samples from across the country.

But she works alone, and carefully prioritizes her days around the most urgent requests that come to the lab. When she was furloughed for more than a month, she lost track of where she was. And the sample requests kept coming.

“See all these containers? It’s because I couldn’t come to work. They are so backlogged,” she said, whirring around the lab on Monday. “These samples, some of them are simple to run, and some of them are hard to run.”

She pointed across the room, where the untested water samples sat in their shipping packaging.

“There’s only one me, so if I have to run some of those samples,” she pointed back to her work station, where other water samples were decanting. “Some of these suffer.”

Sondergaard has worked for the U.S. Geological Survey for 28 years.

Asked if she was thinking about the potential for another shutdown in a couple weeks, Sondergaard appeared visibly shaken.

“I can’t, because I would cry. I would just cry.” She cleared her throat. “We’re people just like everybody else, and we have standards for our work. We think that our work is important, but basically they’re saying it’s not.”

Columbian staff writer