Some Utahns relieved, others reeling after federal shutdown

Published: Thursday, Oct. 17 2013 5:16 p.m. MDT

Exterior of the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Thousands of furloughed federal employees breathed a little easier Thursday as they returned to work. But at least one notable Utah organization that relies heavily on the government could be reeling from the 16-day shutdown for some time.

While the budget impasse in Washington, D.C., didn't push researchers at the Huntsman Cancer Institute out of their labs, it threw a wrench into their efforts to secure critical grants from National Institutes of Health during its closure.

"The whole thing is very insidious," said Mary Beckerle, Huntsman CEO and director. "It is really putting the brakes on our precious, life-saving biomedical research enterprise at a very, very critical time, but in way that's hard to get people protesting in the streets."

The cancer institute receives about $40 million a year from the NIH, which Congress earlier hit with a 5 percent budget cut.

"At time like this when we have pressing needs for cancer research, any slowdown in our progress in getting the top grants funded and getting money into the hands of our investigators is sad for our country," Beckerle said.

Unlike the NIH, Huntsman didn't close hospitals and clinics during the shutdown or turn away patients needing vital cancer care.

"But truly the science that we're doing here and other places around the country, that's what's leading to those life-saving treatments," Beckerle said. "What price can you put on the entire biomedical workforce being slowed down by this?"

Drug Enforcement Administration work in Utah also suffered during the shutdown. Morale was down as agents put their lives on the line with no assurance they would be paid.

But as they reported for duty Thursday, they were told they would receive all their pay in the coming weeks.

"One of the agents summed it up really well after the last pay period: 'Do I pay my credit cards or do I pay my mortgage?'" said Frank Smith, resident agent in charge of the DEA's Rocky Mountain Region.

"Now that we're back on a regular pay schedule, those kinds of concerns are gone. Honestly, that's a big relief for me because I want people to be focused. This is dangerous work, and I want people to be focused on the work, not issues that would arise from not being paid," Smith said.

DEA agents, task force members and administrative staff were among the thousands of federal employees in Utah who returned to work from furloughs Thursday or stood to get back pay. The governor's office estimated about 10,000 Utahns were furloughed.

Smith said he's glad his agents avoided catastrophe and injury during the shutdown that ended with Congress reaching a short-term funding agreement late Wednesday.

At Hill Air Force Base, the majority of its nearly 2,700 furloughed employees were back on the job Oct. 7 as a result of the Pay Our Military Act.

"Our civilians play a vital role in accomplishing the Air Force mission, and we are grateful for their contributions," Col. Fred Thaden, 75th Air Base Wing vice commander, said in a statement. "I am very proud of the way that all of our Team Hill airmen, military and civilian, have kept a positive attitude during this challenging time."

Hill’s leaders are now visiting different work centers around base to answer any questions about the impact of the shutdown, personnel actions, policy decisions and pay.

Workers affected by the furlough during the first week of October received only 60 percent of their normal paycheck. Officials are working to recoup that pay through legislation already signed into law, Thaden said.

The base library reopened Thursday, and the Hill Aerospace Museum will open Friday morning.

The bills Congress approved will fund the government through Jan. 15 and raise the debt ceiling through Feb. 7. The fact that it's poised for another budget battle isn't lost on Smith.

"In my opinion, the politicians need to come to a resolution and have this worked out before January," he said. "At least (a shutdown) isn't going to happen at Christmas.

Beckerle said there's really no way to prepare for another shutdown and that the most recent was "very unnecessary. Do our elected officials not really appreciate how much value these federal funds have in all these different areas, for us in the cancer research arena?"

Email: romboy@deseretnews.com, Twitter: dennisromboy

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