Furloughs or fire drills?

Wednesday - 1/16/2013, 2:00am EST

People who've been in government for more than a year know that furloughs are a lot like the fire drills they went through in grade school. Usually more talk than action.

The government could probably save a fair amount of money (and trees used to make paper) if instead of issuing shutdown fact sheets for the pending furlough du jour it would simply refer to and reissue previous guidelines. Like those issued in April 2011. They are identical to the most recently issued guidance and to furlough factoids developed, issued then withdrawn over the last 20 years.

Although the idea of a furlough seems simple enough — turn out the lights and send everybody home until further notice — nothing is simple in government. A lapse-in-appropriations furlough can be treated differently than an administrative furlough. So the furlough threat (and some of the rules) feds face if the debt ceiling issue isn't settled in the next few weeks, could be slightly different than the one that might come after that in March if the politician-designed sequestration time bomb is allowed to go off.

There are some general rules: If you are furloughed, you won't be paid for that day even if you are required (because of your job) to work it. Huh? Isn't that like, illegal? After the furlough, Congress is expected to approve back pay for the so-called emergency workers and maybe (but not for dead sure) for people who were furloughed and went home.

Workers who are furloughed don't get severance pay. But they might be entitled to unemployment compensation (depending on their state's regulations). But if they get it and are then reimbursed for the time they are furloughed, they must repay the state.

There is also the issue of holidays. Can feds be furloughed over a holiday. Short answer, yes and no and/or it depends. The regs seem to say that "an agency may not properly furlough employees for a three-day period, the middle of which is a holiday, for the sole purpose of saving three-days pay while losing only two days of work. Nor would it be proper to furlough an employee solely on a holiday." This may explain why people who make a career of writing government regulations — to explain and implement laws enacted by Congress and signed to the president — are believed to suffer higher rates of divorce and to expire earlier than other people in their age group!

The fiscal cliff that the government didn't go over last month was one thing. A lot of long-time fed watchers said it was the equivalent of a rain dance regularly played out by the White House and the other party in Congress. But the threat of a shutdown/furloughs is believed to be more real this time.

Both sides think they are on the side of the angels. The President has said he won't negotiate because this is about paying Uncle Sam's bills. The GOP opposition says it is the time to talk about those bills and future expenditures.

In similar food fights in the past that produced shutdowns (1995-96), the media and public opinion mostly backed the President (Bill Clinton) over his rival, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich. This time the White House, fresh from a highly successful reelection campaign, expects history will repeat itself if the worst happens.

What's next? At 10 a.m. today, Janet Kopenhaver, who's been tracking the shutdown action, will be our leadoff guest on our Your Turn radio show. She's been monitoring the big picture what-if scenario for Federally Employed Women. Later in the show Federal Times senior writer Sean Reilly will give us an insider's look at shutdowns and furloughs and also look at the Defense hiring freeze, changes in the Combined Federal Campaign and the new arbitrator-imposed contract between the Postal Service and the National Association of Letter Carriers.


NEARLY USELESS FACTOID

By Jack Moore

"Mary" was the most popular female baby name in the U.S. for 67 consecutive years, between 1879 and 1946. It was finally supplanted by "Linda" in 1947.

(Source: Today I Found Out)


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