Politics

State Department Brings Employees Back To Work Despite Shutdown

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a visit to Muscat, Oman, on Monday.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a visit to Muscat, Oman, on Monday.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AP

The State Department on Thursday ordered employees to return to work next week, despite the partial government shutdown, saying it would figure out how to cover the next paycheck.

In a note posted on its website and emailed to staff, the department said it "is taking steps to make additional funds available to pay employee salaries."

If the shutdown continues beyond the next pay period, State Department officials say they will have to work with Congress to reprogram funds in order to cover salaries.

The partial shutdown that began Dec. 22 caused the furloughs of 23 percent of State Department employees overseas and 40 percent of the domestic employees. Overall, there are 75,000 employees of the State Department, including nearly 50,000 local hires, most of whom are covered by local labor laws and have been receiving pay. Consular services have remained open, funded by passport and visa fees.

Employees will have to wait for the shutdown to end to get paid for the time they worked during the shutdown or were on furlough.

The statement said the department's leadership has been "deeply concerned about the growing financial hardship and uncertainty affecting Department employees."

"While the Department has done its best to address matters essential to achieving U.S. national security and foreign policy objectives during the ongoing lapse, it has become clear as the lapse has continued to historic lengths that we need our full team to address the myriad critical issues requiring U.S. leadership around the globe," according to the announcement.

During a recent weeklong swing through the Middle East, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters that morale was good despite the shutdown. And he went ahead and summoned all U.S. ambassadors back to Washington this week for a previously scheduled conference held Wednesday and Thursday.

That raised eyebrows among many foreign service officers, as did the inclusion of Susan Pompeo, the secretary's wife, on the Middle East swing. During their travels, he defended her as a "force multiplier." Others critical of her attendance on the trip noted the extra expense and staff required to support her and her activities.

During the shutdown, foreign service officers have had to embrace unusual cost-cutting measures in order to keep their missions afloat, according to emails seen by NPR.

One embassy in Europe was instructed to conserve heat and water because because there was no money in the budget to pay utility bills. Workers at a consulate in South America had to pay for their own gas for visits to Americans held in local jails and prisons. Several emails talked about foreign service officers paying local staff with their own money. All officers asked that their embassies not be identified and that their names not be published for fear of retribution.

"It's getting more and more difficult to cover all the bases and figure out how to keep the lights on," said Barbara Stephenson, a diplomat and president of the American Foreign Service Association. "It's a huge drain on time and it has an organizational impact."

Diplomats at one embassy in Africa told Stephenson the local community wanted to start a Go Fund Me campaign when they heard about the furloughs to help out. That sort of thing hurts the image of the U.S. and its diplomats, she said.

"If you've got a group of people whose job it is to project American global leadership and competence, and the fact that we're the can-do problem-solving country in the world having an online Go Fund Me campaign, that really ... is not the image you want to project," she said.

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