Cliff Owen, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Barriers came down at federal memorials and National Park Service sites, and thousands of furloughed federal workers — relieved but wary — returned to work across the country Thursday after 16 days off the job due to the partial government shutdown.
Among the sites reopening were Gettysburg National Park in Pennsylvania, the Smithsonian Institution's network of popular museums, and the World War II memorial in Washington, which had been the scene of protests over the shutdown.
"Just to be able to get back to serving the public is so important," said Greg Bettwy, preparing to return to work with the Smithsonian's human resource department.
For other returning workers, shutdown-related frustration turned to elation at being back on the job. Some confronted backlogs of email and paperwork; others voiced concern that a gridlocked Congress might trigger another shutdown in January.
"It's good to be back to work, making some money," said Jeremy Wright, 23, a Transportation Security Administration contractor. But he knows more unpaid time off is possible: "They only pushed it back to January, so I'm not holding my breath."
At the Labor Department, Secretary Thomas Perez greeted workers with an email telling them he understood how much the furlough disrupted their lives.
"Unfortunately, as President Obama correctly noted, you are occasionally called on to perform your remarkably important work in a climate that too often treats federal employees and contractors as a punching bag," Perez said.
The Defense Department called back about 7,000 furloughed civilians. In an open letter to the workforce, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the department still faces budget uncertainty as Congress struggles to pass a 2014 spending bill and deal with automatic budget cuts.
There will be lingering after-effects at the National Institutes of Health as well — NIH warned university scientists not to expect a quick resumption of research dollars.
"As the shutdown drags on, the challenge of re-establishing normal operations quickly is growing," NIH Deputy Director Dr. Sally Rockey emailed researchers.
In Washington, the Capitol's visitor center planned to resume tours Thursday, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was reopening, and the Smithsonian — overseer of many of Washington's major museums — proclaimed on Twitter, "We're back from the (hashtag)shutdown!"
The National Zoo was set to reopen Friday, though the popular panda cam went live Thursday morning — giving fans a view of a cub wriggling about as her mother, Mei Xiang, tucked her paws under her chin and watched.
At the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, cafeteria worker Alexis Albert said it was good to be back at work. During the shutdown, she made some money by washing hair at her aunt's salon but said her funds were running low.
"I didn't go places where I could look and be tempted to buy," said Albert, of Oxon Hill, Md.
Returning workers' presence was felt on the roads and rails in the Washington region, where commutes had been less crowded over the past two weeks. The regional transit agency, Metro, reported a 20 percent drop in ridership when the shutdown began.
Osman Naimyar, a taxi cab driver in Washington, said his business dropped by 15 to 20 percent during the shutdown, and he was pleased to see it end.
"More business. More money," he said.
At the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md., email servers were slowly grinding back into gear.
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