Utah DEA agents still at work; some canceling vacations to avoid furlough
Michael Brandy, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Frank Smith says the two Capitol police officers who were injured after jumping into action Thursday in Washington, D.C., didn't have to show up to work.
But not only did they report for duty knowing there was no guarantee they'd ever be paid for their lost wages, they willingly put their lives on the line "to protect the people who voted not to pay them," said Smith, the special agent-in-charge for the Rocky Mountain Region of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The officers jumped in front of a vehicle driven by a woman who tried to breach a barrier at the White House and led authorities on a car chase that ended with her shooting death near the Capitol.
"That's heroism at its finest and people that are truly patriots to this country," Smith said Friday.
He has a good idea what the Capitol police officers are going through. He is in charge of the DEA in Utah and his office in Salt Lake City, which also oversees DEA operations in Wyoming and Montana.
Despite 20 percent of his administration and 20 percent of his intelligence-gathering division being on furlough because of the government shutdown, Smith said 100 percent of his enforcement agents — many of whom live paycheck to paycheck — have remained on duty.
"We're still doing our job. We're still here and the lights are on," he said.
But Smith doesn't deny that the shutdown is having a big effect on his office.
"I don't know how this could not affect morale. The simple fact that people are more concerned about, 'How am I going to pay my mortgage?' than 'I'm going to put in 12 hours today and put together a case at its highest level.' Morale is greatly affected. People are worried and scared," he said.
"We do this job for God and country because we're true believers — not for the compensation. But when you don't have any compensation coming in, it's hard to be a patriot and work for God and country.
"The simple reality is we are at work. We are mission-driven. And we are not being compensated for it and may never be compensated for it," he said.
While the hope is that everyone who is still working without pay will receive back pay once the shutdown is over, Smith said it isn't guaranteed. His employees have one more paycheck coming before there will be no more.
"I have people here, that if this goes on for a long time, will not be able to pay their mortgage because there will be no income coming in," he said.
The catch, however, is that employees have to show up to work every single day of the shutdown or they are considered AWOL, Smith said. If they don't show up, they will be considered furloughed and will not be paid for any the days they actually worked. That has created some very unique, and sometimes difficult, situations for some DEA agents.
One of Smith's agents is nine months pregnant and due to give birth at any time. Once she leaves, she will be considered furloughed.
"Even though she has been a phenomenal employee and has amassed a great deal of annual leave and sick time, the minute she goes out to have her child, she is furloughed and goes in the unpaid status," he said.
In another case, Smith said he has an agent — a single mother — who had to pick up her sick daughter from school, and then bring her back to the office with a 102-degree fever so her mom wouldn't miss work.
In addition to sick people not wanting to miss work, Smith's agents are canceling vacations to avoid being furloughed.
"If someone scheduled a vacation six months ago and paid for that dream vacation to Alaska, and it's already paid for, if that individual goes on vacation he is then furloughed and is not being paid. So we have people who are stepping away from trips they have planned for a lifetime," he said.
And then, Smith said there is the issue of security background checks. Every five years, all employees are given "top secret security clearance" to continue working, which includes a background check into an employee's finances.
If an employee cannot pay their mortgage because of the shutdown, it could affect that background check.
"You will be red-flagged and you could lose your clearance if you don't pay your bills," he said. "This (shutdown) is encompassing levels people have never thought of."
Smith said his office will continue to work and make drug busts during the shutdown as normal. But he continues to hope that it ends sooner rather than later.
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