Feds learn furlough status as shutdown looms

Friday - 9/27/2013, 1:29pm EDT

Federal employees began learning Friday whether they'll be forced to stay home if the government shuts down next week.

Supervisors were tasked with informally telling employees today whether they are classified as "essential" or "nonessential," according to several federal-employee unions briefed by the Obama administration.

Congress is prepared to work through the weekend, but the clock is ticking down for lawmakers to agree on a funding bill keeping the lights on at agencies beyond Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.

All employees are expected to report to work Tuesday. However, at that time, nonessential employees will be issued an official notice of furlough and sent home, according to the American Federation of Government Employees.

Neither employees required to stay on the job nor those that are furloughed will be paid while the government remains closed. Those that were required to work will be paid once Congress restores funding. But there's no guarantee furloughed employees will receive backpay.

Unions not confident of backpay

Following the last government shutdown, which lasted for three weeks and ended in early 1996, Congress eventually approved backpay for all federal workers — those who worked through the shutdown and those forced to stay home.

But Bill Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, told Federal News Radio that's not likely this time around.

"I am not confident that it would happen given the mood of Congress and the actions that I'm seeing out of Congress with respect to how federal employees are viewed and being treated by them," Dougan said.

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, told Federal News Radio the union she leads would fight to ensure backpay for all federal workers.

"Employees were ready, willing, and able to come to work and I think they should be paid if it's a lack of funding by Congress that causes them to do stay home," she told Federal News Radio.

The Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management reached out to unions Thursday to provide more information about agencies shutdown preparations. More details will also be provided in agencies' shutdown contingency plans, which will be posted on an OMB website by this afternoon. The site currently lists agency contingency plans dating from 2011 — the last time a shutdown deadline loomed this close.

"None of this planning should obscure the critical nature of the issues before us," Kelley said in an earlier statement provided to Federal News Radio. "Most immediately, a government shutdown will hurt the federal workforce; federal agencies and the public. ... Federal agencies have had to devote time and resources to develop yet another crisis plan, distracting agencies from their critical missions. And, if the government shuts down, the public will be further harmed by the loss of vital services people need and depend upon."

Feds frustrated by uncertainty

Union officials say the shutdown and potential furloughs couldn't come at a worse time.

Many federal employees, including about 650,000 civilian workers at the Defense Department, were furloughed without pay this year as a result of the across-the-board sequestration budget constraints. Lawmakers haven't yet resolved that budget fight either and a second tranche of cuts is set to go into effect next week.

In addition, federal workers' pay remains frozen at 2010 levels. President Barack Obama has proposed a 1 percent pay raise that would go into effect in January, but Congress, which blocked a similar increase last year, has the final say.

"It's a very uncertain time for them and Congress is certainly not helping the situation by their lack of action and their inability to come together to do the business that they were elected to do," Dougan said.

The last time agencies came this close to a shutdown wasin April 2011, before lawmakers came to an 11th-hour agreement on a short-term spending bill.

But Kelley said she's not confident lawmakers will do so this time.

"I think we're going to come right up to the wire if not cross it," she said. "Every day that passes pushes us closer."

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