Emails obtained by the News4 Washington I-Team reveal the political choreography and strategy top government officials shared the morning of Oct. 17 as the government shutdown was lifted and hundreds of thousands of federal workers, many of them frustrated and strapped for cash, returned to the office.
If you're a federal worker who was furloughed, you were likely welcomed back by the boss in a memo, in a meeting or with a handshake.
The I-Team noticed several top government officials greeting employees in similar fashion the morning of Oct. 17. The Secretary of Agriculture, the Secretary of the Interior, the EPA administrator, and even Vice President Joe Biden were all standing at government building entrances shaking hands of furloughed employees returning to work. Biden even took muffins.
The I-Team wanted to know if it was coordinated and filed Freedom of Information Act requests for the emails of agency leaders. Emails show the U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs received detailed guidance from the White House communications staff urging the secretary and other VA leaders to "stand outside the main entrance for 20 or 30 minutes" the first three business days following the shutdown and “walk the halls or the cafeteria, just to be seen a bit in the building and touch the employees.”
The White House also requested the secretary send an email urging staff not to "gloat or celebrate" as the shutdown ended.
A White House spokeswoman said other agency heads were given the same guidance, which also told cabinet members to tell workers the shutdown had been a "difficult time." Memos from the secretary of VA, the treasury and the attorney general all used the word “difficult.”
"On the day the shutdown ended, VA was focused on resuming full operations as quickly as possible to ensure Veterans received the benefits they earned and deserved,” read a statement from VA. “That is our mission every day.”
In videotaped remarks for employees Oct. 17, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said, "I appreciate the uncertainty was very hard on you, very hard on your families.”
“The secretary did a lot of things to welcome back employees in the days after the government shutdown, and she (did) them out of care and because it was the right thing to do,” Jewell's spokesperson said.
“Secretary (Shaun) Donovan’s compassion for his employees was displayed when he personally said goodbye and apologized to employees departing the Weaver Building on the initial furlough day,” a spokesman for the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development said.
This type of organized message was important, said Matthew Miller, former public affairs director for Attorney General Eric Holder.
"All of these employees were just told they were not essential,” he said. “This was a way for the leaders of the agency to get down, see people, let them know they value the work. It's good for morale. It's good for retention."
Staffers told the I-Team Some of the in-person "welcome back" appearances were popular. Justice Department staffers were took "selfie" iPhone photos alongside their boss.