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Stark Insight Into the Meaning of ‘Essential’ at Commerce

A NOAA employee analyzes data from a sonar system. Roughly half of NOAA employees have been furloughed during the government shutdown

A NOAA employee analyzes data from a sonar system. Roughly half of NOAA employees have been furloughed during the government shutdown // Steve Helber/AP

The Commerce Department’s shutdown plan provides stark insight into the meaning of the word “essential” and the creation of new classes of federal worker “haves” and “have nots:” Only 35 out of 15,641 at the Census Bureau were tapped to work versus 5,368 National Oceanic and Atmospheric employees, 45 percent of the total NOAA workforce.

The Oct. 1 Commerce Plan for Orderly Shutdown said the department would continue to provide weather, water and climate forecasts during the shutdown, fisheries management activities and  critical nautical chart updates and accurate position information, all managed by NOAA organizations, including the National Weather Service.

Commerce planned to retain 3,935 employees of the National Weather Service during the shutdown, or roughly eight percent of its total 46,420-person workforce. Census absorbed 33 percent of the total cuts planned by Commerce.

Chief information officers remained immune to furloughs throughout Commerce, with Census CIO Brian McGrath among the 35 employees slated to work throughout the shutdown. Six Census information technology security specialists and five IT specialists also escaped furloughs.

Commerce CIO Simon Szykman will also work through the shutdown, along with five other employees to protect and maintain the department’s IT infrastructure and provide support for emergencies, according to the highly detailed 92-page Commerce shutdown plan.

Nonfurloughed National Weather Service employees include meteorologists, hydrologists, geophysicists, meteorological technicians, electronic technicians and IT Specialists.  This includes 106 employees to provide operational support for the service’s Telecommunications Gateway, an “integral component for the collection and distribution of weather data and products necessary to protect the safety of human life and property,” the Commerce shutdown plan said.

Commerce planned to keep 184 employees of NOAA’s Environmental Satellite and Data Information Service on the job during the shutdown to support  provide command and control of NOAA and Defense Department  operational environmental satellites, as well as data and imagery.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology planned to furlough 81 percent of its 3,143 person workforce with only 275 remaining on the job. These employees will, among other tasks, help maintain operation of the national timing and synchronization infrastructure essential to transportation, telecommunications networks globally and financial systems.

The Patent and Trademark Office will retain 106 employees, or 1 percent of its 11,789 person workforce to handle patent and trademark processing, the Commerce shutdown plan said.

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