Marylanders relieved at shutdown's end to have 'weathered the storm so far,' but anxious it might happen again

WASHINGTON — Marylanders expressed relief Friday at the end of the partial federal government shutdown, but also frustration that it lasted a record 35 days — and anxiety that it could happen again next month.

"It's not right that this happened in the first place," said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat who said he voted 11 times since the shutdown began Dec. 22 to give President Donald Trump and Congress more time to negotiate border security funding without holding federal agencies "hostage."

The dispute between Trump and Congress was over whether to fund a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico.

"These government employees are pawns in this issue," said Ruppersberger, who had been planning to host a now-canceled "resource fair" Monday in Baltimore to explain unemployment benefits and other assistance to affected workers.

Lila Johnson, a contract custodian at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said Friday she was happily awaiting word from her supervisor on when to report back to work.

"My first thought was ‘Great’ — I'm happy for everybody," said Johnson, 71. She lives in Hagerstown and is raising two great-grandchildren, ages 6 and 15.

But she said her two missed paychecks during the impasse totaled about $1,600, and she didn't know if she would receive that back pay, which she needs for rent and other expenses.

Congress has approved legislation assuring back pay for federal employees, but contractors have no similar guarantee.

Johnson's union, 32BJ SEIU, released a statement Friday expressing relief at the deal to end the shutdown. But it said "we will not give up the fight" until its members receive back pay. The union represents 163,000 cleaners, security officers and other workers — including 18,000 in the Baltimore-Washington region.

Maryland's U.S. senators, Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, both Democrats, have introduced legislation to secure back pay for such federal contractors, including janitorial, food service and security workers.

Under the deal reached Friday, the federal government will be open for three weeks while negotiations continue over the president's border wall demands.

The shutdown affected a quarter of the government and about 800,000 employees who were furloughed or working without pay.

Because of its proximity to Washington, Maryland was affected more severely than most other states. State Comptroller Peter Franchot’s office estimated the shutdown affected 172,000 Marylanders, including federal employees and contractors who weren't being paid.

The number of Marylanders seeking shutdown-related unemployment insurance benefits reached 4,109 as of Thursday. The benefits must be reimbursed once federal workers get back pay. There was no estimate available from the state on how much was paid out.

The shutdown also affected some Maryland nonprofits and other organizations relying on federal dollars.

Russ Snyder, president of Volunteers of America Chesapeake, said that Friday’s news brought relief to the nonprofit but that worry remains over how quickly the federal workers can address the backlogs they’ll be facing and whether the country will see a repeat three weeks from now.

Volunteers of American runs a re-entry program for ex-offenders in East Baltimore.

“What is going to happen on Feb. 15? We’ve weathered the storm so far, but it hasn’t been without pain and concern, taking out a line of credit and tightening our budget,” Snyder said. “It took a financial and emotional toll.”

Snyder said the nonprofit has been carrying nearly $1 million in expenses that the federal government must reimburse. Without the money from the contract, Snyder said he was not sure how much longer the organization could pay the 50 employees who work at a 148-bed re-entry center at 5000 E. Monument St.

“I can’t afford that, even with a line of credit,” he said. “It puts too much strain and risk on our entire nonprofit.”

He said the Volunteers of America is anxiously waiting to see what the next three weeks bring.

Rep. Elijah Cummings and other Democratic members of the state's congressional delegation expressed hope that future shutdowns can be avoided.

"Now we all need to move forward — through reasoned dialog and normal order — to create a long-term agreement that supports Americans’ priorities and protects our borders through smart security without abandoning the values of our nation or punishing hundreds of thousands of government employees, contractors, and their families," the Baltimore Democrat said.

Southern Maryland Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer, the House majority leader, called it "deeply angering" that Trump "inflicted uncertainty and economic insecurity on Americans across the country for no reason for the past 35 days."

But Rep. Andy Harris of Baltimore County — the state delegation's lone Republican — said in a statement that Trump had led a "successful negotiation."

“I’m glad to see that President Trump has brokered a deal to open the government for the next three weeks while adequate border security funding is negotiated," Harris said. "America needs to see an end to the threat of any future shutdown by Democrats who cling to their dangerous pursuit of open borders and amnesty."

Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.

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