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County’s Federal Workers Make Up for Lost Time as Budget Crisis Eases

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With sighs of relief, some fears for the future and large piles of unopened mail on their desks, thousands of furloughed federal workers around Ventura County returned to work Monday morning.

“It feels very good to be back,” said Carol Spears, a public information officer at Channel Islands National Park. “It kind of goes against the grain of a park ranger to close the park. Most employees did not look at this as a good thing.”

Visitors trickled back into the park’s Ventura Harbor welcome center as well as the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library near Simi Valley, both of which had been closed since the budget stalemate in Washington led to the furlough of 800,000 workers across the country Wednesday.

Historians, librarians and support staff streamed back into the presidential library early Monday, after Sunday night’s budget compromise, to prepare for the 10 a.m. opening of two new shows: a collection of 40 watercolor paintings by Prince Charles of Wales and a display of Christmas trees from around the world.

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And at 10:30 a.m. today, Nancy Reagan will visit the library’s gift shop to autograph copies of her autobiography, “My Turn,” and a collection of quotations titled “Ronald Reagan: The Wit and Wisdom of the Great Communicator.”

“We’d been afraid that if this [budget stalemate] had lasted any longer, we would have had to cancel” the former First Lady’s appearance, said Lynda Schuler, a library spokeswoman.

Sheryl Zen Ruffinen, an American living in the Netherlands, visited the Channel Islands park Monday during a car trip from San Francisco to San Diego.

“I’m sure all my friends in Europe were wondering what was going on,” she said as she examined small models of the Channel Islands. “Something like that would be unheard of in Europe.”

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For park employees, the biggest task of the day was paperwork.

“There’s a lot of backlog,” Spears said. “Most of it is paperwork--things like writing performance evaluations, memoranda of understandings with other agencies and even payroll.”

Rishi Tyagi, a supervisor at the Camarillo office of the Minerals Management Service, said he was as grateful to see his co-workers back in the office as they were to return.

“Right now, there is a sense of relief,” he said. “But they’re looking forward to Dec. 15,” when the short-term funding agreement ends.

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Tyagi was the only person to continue working for the service in the region.

“All the calls were coming to me. The mail came to me. Most of it I didn’t even open,” he said. “There were two huge crates, like you see at the post office.

“It was very lonely and stressful, very hectic. I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off. Three phone lines were ringing and I didn’t know which one to answer first,” he added.

At the Naval Construction Battalion Center, more than 1,000 furloughed civilian employees--including supply clerks, computer processors and mechanics--reported for work Monday morning.

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“People are getting back to assessing what’s going on and prioritizing what needs to be done immediately,” said Linda Hadley, a public affairs officer at the Port Hueneme base. “Any time you have more than 1,000 people off work, you’re going to have a large backlog.”

Hadley said the base was fortunate because two-thirds of its civilian employees were deemed essential and continued to work. But those who were gone had plenty to catch up on.

“When you’ve been away from work and it’s kind of a sudden thing, you get back and have to deal with everything you left behind and everything that’s gone on in the meantime,” she said.

“It presented a real morale situation, both for the people who were furloughed and for the people who were left behind and looked around to see so many of their colleagues gone,” she added.

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At an Army recruitment center in Oxnard, employees worked at a leisurely pace on their first day back, saying the work stoppage had come at a slow time of year.

“I think I broke my back from three days in bed,” joked Staff Sgt. Kenneth M. Smith, who commands the Oxnard station. “I get paid either way.”

Things were a little more hectic at local Social Security and IRS offices, which saw heavy traffic early Monday.

“It is busy, a little more than usual,” said Larry Boland, district manager for the Ventura and Oxnard Social Security offices. “We have a week’s worth of lead applications for benefits that need to be addressed. . . . But I think everyone’s glad to be back.”

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Some mortgage companies that deal with federal loans said they had found ways to be productive despite the government’s suspended activities.

“We never really skipped a beat,” said Ron Weisner, district manager for the Medallion Mortgage Co., which processes about 25 federal loans each week. “We went ahead and processed as if we would get the necessary information from the federal government, just a little late. When you’ve been through it enough times, you know to just keep going.”

Times staff writer Mack Reed contributed to this story.

* MAIN STORY

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