An unwelcome holiday came to an abrupt end Thursday for thousands of federal employees across the Boulder area as the resolution of the government shutdown sent them all back to work.
Michael Kelley, acting Boulder laboratory operations director for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, said only about 15 to 20 of roughly 340 full-time employees worked on site during the 16-day shutdown. They were needed mostly either for facility security or safety concerns.
In the case of scientists on the federal payroll, Kelley said, these were not laborers kicking up their heels over the unplanned break from their working routines.
"They're here not because it's their job," Kelley said. "They're here because it's their profession. And anything that prevents their professional success, it's a challenge to deal with.
"I'm sure there were staff who viewed this as a holiday," he added, "but I'm sure that's by far the exception. Most enjoy being here, doing the work of the American people that they are expected to do. This was not a holiday for them. ... There are things on their to-do list that now they can get done."
Federal employees will be paid for the shutdown period, according to Wednesday's congressional deal to end the government shutdown. Employees can expect back pay as soon as their next paychecks.
A 2011-13 analysis of federal labs' economic impact in Colorado authored by the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado showed that there were 3,539 people employed in Boulder at federally funded labs.
Boulder County led all Colorado counties in that analysis, with 37 percent of the state's federal lab workers living within its borders. Also, the economic impact of federal labs on Boulder County for fiscal year 2012 was put at $743.2 million, the highest in the state, with only Jefferson County even approaching that figure, at $733.3 million.
The shutdown hit equally hard at large facilities such as NIST, and the small, such as the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in Boulder, where all but three of the roughly 65 employees were sidelined.
NIST's Kelley said it was too soon to address the shutdown's impact, either in terms of workflow or economics.
"It's really too early to assess that," Kelley said of workplace considerations at NIST. "It would not be possible to give any kind of a sensible statement about that until we have had a chance to evaluate the kinds of problems that have cropped up. Scientific equipment doesn't like to be left alone."
As for the economic impact, Kelley said, "It will probably never be possible to give a sensible answer to that. Even under the best of times, it's difficult to give a compelling economic value to things like basic research."
Even offices not actually staffed by federal workers felt the shutdown's bite. For example, the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at CU has about 300 employees who typically work out of office space at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Research. NOAA shares a campus with NIST and was also shut down.
"We tried to find alternate locations for people to work on campus," said Kristen Averyt, associate director for science at CIRES. "I spent a lot of time walking from coffee shop to coffee shop at Basemar, checking in on CIRES people to see what I could do for people. ... This was uncharted territory for us."
Averyt wears a second hat as director of the Western Water Assessment, a NOAA program based at CIRES. She said several WWA researchers were not able to file applications for National Science Foundation Rapid Response Research grants after Oct. 1, for fast-reaction research aimed at learning more from time-sensitive data available immediately following the historic September flood.
"It's unfortunate because I think it's going to compromise what we might have learned in the wake of the flood, because NSF was shut down," Averyt said. "We weren't able to submit these proposals and take advantage of this data that could have been gathered in recent weeks."
Voicing a sentiment likely echoed across the country Thursday, Averyt added, "I just hope that they're able to ramp things up again -- not just my group ... but all of us. Just to get back to work."
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