Nearly 300 federal workers recalled from furlough to perform different jobs

Nearly 300 furloughed Department of Homeland Security employees are being called back to work amid the longest government shutdown in history. Photo courtesy Paul J. Richards / Getty Images

By Geneva Sands and Nick Valencia, CNN

    (CNN) -- Nearly 300 furloughed Department of Homeland Security employees are being called back to work amid the longest government shutdown in history.

Those federal workers -- all from the E-Verify division of US Citizenship and Immigration Services -- will be back on the job and the payroll starting Tuesday morning until a deal is reached to fund the parts of the government that are closed.

However, the E-Verify employees won't be going back to their pre-shutdown jobs for now. Instead they will be required to take on other responsibilities within Citizenship and Immigration Services. Employees will be assigned to jobs that are fee-funded, according to Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman Michael Bars.

Employees will receive the same pay rate they did before the shutdown.

Citizenship and Immigration Services and a portion of the Federal Emergency Management Agency make up the majority of the DHS workforce that continued to report to work and to be paid during the shutdown from other than annual appropriations, according to a DHS official.

The E-Verify staff was an exception. It has been in furlough status since the shutdown began on Dec. 22.

"As you can imagine we are thrilled to have them back in our ranks, however, we continue to support all government employees who are working without pay and those who are not working," said Danielle Spooner, the president of American Federation of Government Employees Council 119, which represents Citizenship and Immigration Services employees.

Notices were sent to the some 300 E-Verify staff stationed around the country informing them they had to report to work this week and would be reassigned to other jobs until the end of the shutdown.

According to a notice obtained by CNN, employees went back on the payroll on Sunday and are required to report to the office after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

The measures were proposed by Citizenship and Immigration Services and approved by DHS to help mitigate the impact of the partial government shutdown, according to Bars.

"USCIS is fortunate that our highly trained and experienced E-Verify staff are returning to help support the agency's mission in other capacities until their program is fully functional. We're thankful for their patience and flexibility during this time," Bars said.

Employees will receive training for their new job functions and will return to their E-Verify jobs when a deal is reached to fund the government, according to USCIS.

Although E-Verify employees will be back at work, the program itself, which allows businesses to electronically confirm the employment eligibility of their workers, will remain dormant.

Due to "the continued lapse in appropriations, you are still prohibited from performing work in support of the E-Verify program. As such, you will perform exempt (fee-funded) activities in support of the USCIS mission," read a notification sent to employees.

Participating in the E-Verify program is voluntary for employers, except for some state requirements and some federal hiring, according to a union official who works for the program.

"E-Verify is shut down right now, so employers cannot verify eligibility of employees," said the official.

However, Citizenship and Immigration Services took a "number of steps to minimize the burden on both employees and employers," such as suspending the "three-day rule" for creating E-Verify cases, said Bars.

"Fidelity to a lawful workforce doesn't stop with the suspension of the E-Verify program," said Bars in a statement to CNN. "USCIS is committed to protecting U.S. workers, the integrity of our immigration system, and our laws."

Although it wasn't immediately clear what jobs the E-Verify staff would be doing, the work would likely be immigration-related, which is fee-funded at the agency, according to the union official.

At least one reassignment was to the Field Operations Directorate to help process Notices to Appear -- a document that instructs an individual to appear before an immigration judge, according to an employee notification obtained by CNN.

E-Verify employees had mixed reactions to the news that they would be called back to work.

"I am most upset about being recalled for a job I wasn't hired for and having to pay back the furlough assistance loan immediately without back pay from the two missed checks," an E-Verify employee told CNN.

The employee, who said they had faced financial hardship during the past month, was concerned that previously agreed-upon telework options may not be available in the new role.

"I won't know if we'll be allowed to telework, however, I believe our pay stays the same," the employee said.

Spooner told CNN she had heard concerns about telework and requiring staff to work different jobs, but that she also had heard about people glad to be going back to work and making a living.

"I would like to think that most are happy to get back to work and these are small issues in comparison to being forced to work and not getting paid. That causes a financial hardship," said Spooner.

The union official, who had to take on outside work during the furlough, said, "I don't ever look a gift horse in the mouth."

"I need to go back to work because I need to pay my bills. There are some questions that employees have. What are we going to be doing? Were we hired for that?" said the union official, who works for E-Verify outside of Washington.

When asked if most people were happy to go back to work, the official said, "Absolutely."


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