This Is What Happened When Congress Shut down CDC in 2013

Categories: Congress, Pay, Budget

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is known for its work in helping prevent diseases and protect people from food borne illnesses. But few people know that the agency is also helping the Department of Defense safely destroy the U.S. stockpile of chemical warfare agents in accordance with the U.N. international chemical weapon convention treaty the United States ratified in 1997. But the work of CDC and other agencies to safely destroy the stockpile began years before the U.S. took part in the treaty. The CDC’s job is to review DoD’s plans and recommend actions to protect public health and safety during the disposal of the chemical weapons.

Thanks to their great work, about 90% of these lethal chemical agents – mainly mustard and nerve agents – have been safely destroyed without harming workers in the plants and the communities outside the facilities.

But when Congress shut down the government in October 2013, questions were raised regarding safety and security of everyone involved. Marilyn Radke, a CDC medical officer and an AFGE member, was one of the scientists and researchers who were told to leave the fatal stockpiles behind for the duration of the shutdown that lasted 16 days.

“During that time I was not available to assist if there had been a problem,” said Radke, the physician for the team from the National Center for Environmental Health, which is part of the CDC.

The problem she was referring to was a possible explosion of one of the bombs at one of those stockpiles that had chemical warfare weapons in it. If it had spread chemical warfare agents in the area where workers and those in the community were, deaths and severe injuries could have ensued.

It’s hard to imagine that Radke and her team, tasked with protecting lives, were locked out of their jobs because of elected officials’ ideological agendas.

In 2013, other parts of the CDC were closed as well. When there’s an E.coli or salmonella outbreak, Radke’s husband’s job is to investigate the source to prevent the disease from spreading. He also conducts food safety research that helps prevent numerous foodborne diseases. Yet in October, 2013, he and his-coworkers were told to stay home. If the recent salmonella outbreak that originated at a peanut factory had taken place during the 2013 shutdown, they wouldn’t have been available to investigate. The skeleton crew had CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden worried.

"I usually don't lose sleep despite the threats that we face, but I am losing sleep because we don't know if we'll be able to find and stop things that might kill people," he told CBS News. []

Also furloughed were CDC quarantine staff whose job was to identify travelers coming into the United States at airports who might have highly contagious diseases such as Ebola.

The shutdown hurt the public and the employees. It’s even more so in the Radkes’ case as both of them were furloughed. They got paid eventually, but delayed paychecks are never good news for any family.

Radke is currently on a detail working on an Ebola emergency response team that takes calls from around the world 24/7. She will not be furloughed if Congress shuts down the government. Her husband, on the other hand, will be furloughed again.

The Radkes were among two thirds of CDC employees who were furloughed in 2013, according to the White House’s report on the impacts and costs of the 2013 shutdown.

On the Day of the Shutdown

Many employees did not know about the shutdown until they arrived at work on the morning of October 1. According to AFGE Local 2883 President Pamela Gilbertz, all employees had received the individual email from the Department of Health and Human Services several days in advance letting them know whether they’d go home for the duration or have to work if there was a furlough.

However, since CDC at that time had no agency-wide system or procedures for sending notice to off-duty employees, quite a few employees had gone to bed the night before not knowing whether there would be a shutdown or not. The agency had set up a web site and a phone line during the shutdown so employees could check the site or call the line for updated information, but many employees didn’t know about the site or the phone line.

There also was another problem. It was not understood by many employees that after they’d taken whatever remaining actions were necessary to shut down their work operations that morning, they wouldn’t be able to access copies of their furlough letters, which had been sent to everyone by email, or any personnel records or related files such as eOPF, MyPay, or Thrift Savings Plan logins that they might have stored internally on their office computers or network drives or in hard copy file storage on site. 

As a result many of them did not take the time to print copies of crucial documentation to take with them or forward copies to their home email.  When they subsequently needed proof of their furlough and other personnel information to apply for unemployment benefits or other services, they were unable to get to the information they needed.

“Since many employees live payday to payday with little in savings, being furloughed and not having any pay deposited in their bank account on payday presented an extreme hardship for many employees,” Gilbertz said.  “Some did not have money to pay their rent or mortgage payment on time, buy groceries, or pay copays for doctor visits, hospital stays, or prescription drugs.”

Gilbertz and other union officers and stewards were furloughed and were not able to communicate with or represent employees who had to work during the shutdown. She created a Facebook page for the local and emailed her bargaining unit members the hyperlink to the page. But she wasn’t sure how many of them saw her email before they were locked out.

Gilbertz said the agency refused to give the union any information about how many or which bargaining unit employees were designated exempt and therefore would be working during the shutdown or how many and which ones would be locked out. 

After the shutdown was over, she had a “lessons learned” meeting with all her officers and stewards. They went over all the problems that had arisen, brainstormed, and decided on ways to address them and prevent recurrence. Afterward, they shared with employees and members by email and in meetings what they had come up with.

As for that Facebook page, it’s still up and running. Gilbertz is sending out an email to all bargaining unit employees and members to remind them of the page in advance of what may happen on October 1. 

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