WASHINGTON — Barriers came down at federal memorials and National Park Service sites and thousands of furloughed federal workers — relieved but wary — returned to work across the country Thursday after 16 days off the job due to the partial government shutdown.
Among the sites reopening were Yosemite National Park in California, the Smithsonian Institution's network of popular museums, and the World War II memorial in Washington, which had been the scene of protests over the shutdown.
"Just to be able to get back to serving the public is so important," said Greg Bettwy, preparing to return to work with the Smithsonian's human resource department.
For other returning workers, shutdown-related frustration turned to elation at being back on the job. Some confronted backlogs of email and paperwork; others voiced concern that a gridlocked Congress might trigger another shutdown in January.
"The phrase everyone is talking about is 'kicking the can down the road,'" said Richard Marcus of Silver Spring, Md., who has worked at the National Archives and Records Administration for 29 years. "We'd hate to have to live through this all over again."
The federal workers who were furloughed or worked without pay during the shutdown will get back pay in their next paychecks, which for most employees come Oct. 29.
At the Labor Department, Secretary Thomas Perez greeted workers with an email telling them he understood how much the furlough disrupted their lives.
"Unfortunately, as President Obama correctly noted, you are occasionally called on to perform your remarkably important work in a climate that too often treats federal employees and contractors as a punching bag," Perez said.
The Defense Department called back about 7,000 furloughed civilians. In an open letter to the workforce, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the department still faces budget uncertainty as Congress struggles to pass a 2014 spending bill and deal with automatic budget cuts.