U.S. EPA chief Gina McCarthy was grinning and jumping up and down outside agency headquarters this morning as she greeted her returning furloughed staff.
"This is like a party," she told staffers as she hugged EPA employees and snapped photos with them at the entrance to the Federal Triangle Metro.
Her jubilance was shared by scores of agency workers who crowded outside EPA's main building in downtown Washington, D.C., catching up with their co-workers, hugging friends they hadn't seen during the 16-day shutdown and expressing relief that they would get paid for their forced time off.
"It's great to be back," said one EPA employee. She added, "It's really nice having the administrator greet you on your first day back." Other top EPA officials, including Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe and enforcement chief Cynthia Giles, were also on hand to welcome staff.
EPA employees also cheerfully welcomed the arrival of Vice President Joe Biden, who stopped by agency headquarters this morning to deliver baked goods and welcome agency staff back to work. Employees crowded around the entrance of the William Jefferson Clinton building to shake hands with the vice president.
"I brought some muffins!" Biden said as he arrived at the security desk carrying containers of "coffee cake bites," according to a White House pool report. Upon seeing the long line of employees gathered to see him, he got concerned: "I didn't bring enough muffins!"
The vice president told EPA workers he was sorry they had to miss work and "had to go through all that." He also lamented the environmental work that was stalled during the shutdown. "No inspections on water and air and the Everglades. These guys not only took a hit and weren't sure -- I mean, the anxiety of knowing whether they'd get back or paid."
McCarthy -- one of the few agency staffers who worked throughout the shutdown -- said she's happy to have the building filled with employees again.
"It feels great. It's so exciting to have people come back," she told Greenwire. "They deserve better than to be off work, and they like getting paid but they want to do the work, and I'm so excited to have them working again."
About 15,000 EPA employees across the country were furloughed during the shutdown, according to a contingency plan released by the agency earlier this month. That's about 93 percent of EPA staff.
Agency employees received a memo upon returning to the office that included a note from McCarthy.
"We have certainly missed you!" the memo said. "I know the past couple of weeks have been difficult, especially for families. But we are working to ensure your transition back to the office is smooth and as painless as possible." EPA also told employees that all government travel through Oct. 20 has been canceled, and reminded them to remove their "out of office" messages from their email and voice mail accounts.
Employees at EPA's Chicago office received the memo from McCarthy along with a plea to keep their refrigerators clean. Staff found some soup dating almost back to the 1996 government shutdown when they cleaned up last week.
"During the shutdown, we made every effort to water accessible plants," said the Region 5 email sent today. "And of necessity, the refrigerators were emptied of all perishable foodstuffs last week. The oldest food found? A can of Campbell's soup dated 1997! So, please remember it is everyone's responsibility to keep the refrigerators clean."
EPA employees said they were up late last night waiting for news about when they should return to work. Some got up early this morning to wade through their email accounts, which they had been barred from checking since they were sent home Oct. 1.
"We're just thrilled to be back," said one EPA employee. She said it was "boring" being furloughed. "We didn't have any money, so we just sat around the house and kind of watched CNN the whole time."
A staffer in EPA's enforcement office said "it's probably going to take a little bit of time" for the agency to get fully up and running again. But he said he had gotten a head start: "I already have things I've been working on my BlackBerry on the way here."
But while employees seemed generally gleeful to get back to work, they worried that the budget deal only lasts through January -- meaning another shutdown could occur early next year.
"There's a concern" that it will shut down again, said a staffer in EPA's Office of International and Tribal Affairs. "I'll make sure I have at least two paychecks saved. I don't want to have that worry."
Asked today whether there was any guarantee this wouldn't happen again in a few months, Biden said "there's no guarantees of anything," according to pool reports. But, he added, "I hope everybody walks away with a lesson that this is unnecessary, and I hope we can regain the trust of the American people."
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