Government shutdown: 4 things feds should know

Tuesday - 10/1/2013, 2:00am EDT

With the clock hitting midnight and no deal on funding federal agencies in sight, lawmakers have essentially hit the "off" switch on government.

For thousands of federal employees who head to work today, it won't be to execute their agencies' missions, but to shut down their computers, fill out a timesheet and, in some cases, hand over their BlackBerry smartphones.

Here are four things feds should know as they prepare for the first government shutdown in more than 17 years.

1

What happens now?

Agency supervisors late last week began informally telling employees if they would be deemed essential, and required to work through the shutdown, or nonessential and forced onto unpaid leave.

Regardless, all employees are expected to report to work today, but not everyone will be working a full day's work. Those employees not excepted from furloughs — estimated to be as many as 800,000 employees governmentwide — are expected to take no more than three or four hours to secure their files and work stations before their furloughs officially begin, according to shutdown guidance issued by the Office of Management and Budget last week.

For some employees, those shutdown preparations could even include handing over their agency-issued smartphones, according to OMB.

The law barring federal employees from working or volunteering their services when congressional appropriations have lapsed, extends "to work performed from outside of the office, including via mobile devices or remote computer connections," OMB's guidance stated.

Some agencies, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development, have set a hard deadline for closing its doors to nonessential workers. HUD offices will close at 1 p.m., according to the Associated Press.

2

Who and what will be affected?

At a press briefing Monday afternoon, President Barack Obama described what a government shutdown would look like.

"Office buildings would close; paychecks would be delayed," he said. "Vital services that seniors and veterans, women and children, businesses and our economy depend on would be hamstrung ... Veterans, who've sacrificed for their country, will find their support centers unstaffed. Tourists will find every one of America's national parks and monuments, from Yosemite to the Smithsonian to the Statue of Liberty, immediately closed."

All told, according to recent reports, between 800,000 and 1 million federal employees — more than one-third of the 2.1 million-member federal workforce — would be classified as nonessential and placed on unpaid leave.

However, individual agencies are tasked with making the final determinations about who will be required to work through the shutdown, according to administration guidance.

"Excepted employees include employees who are performing emergency work involving the safety of human life or the protection of property or performing certain other types of excepted work," according to Office of Personnel Management guidance updated this month.

Agencies, large and small, plan to furlough large portions of their workforces.

Defense Department officials said last week as many as 400,000 civilian DoD workers — roughly half of its civilian workforce — will be furloughed starting today.

More than 90 percent of the Internal Revenue Service's 90,000 employees will be forced to stay home without pay, according to that agency's contingency plan posted online. About 70 percent of the staff at the National Institutes of Health will be furloughed, while just 3 percent of the 18,000 employees at NASA will remain working.

(Click here for a list of more agency shutdown plans.)

The process for shutting the government down is "agonizing" said Sally Katzen, a senior adviser at the Podesta Group and former OMB official during the Clinton administration.

"This is not like a lightbulb that you turn it on and off," Katzen said in an interview on In Depth with Francis Rose. "And when you turn it off, there are all sorts of things that can happen. First, you have an interruption — an interruption that is not natural, an interruption that can have other consequences. Think about research that is being done at NIH or if you're working on curating an exhibit at the Smithsonian. It makes sense to keep working something through to the end. If you're interrupted, then in starting it back up again, what have you lost beside just the time and the momentum?"

Building and workspaces owned, leased or managed by the General Services Administration will remain open to accommodate excepted personnel, according to a statement from GSA spokesman Dan Cruz. However, GSA services will be limited and similar to weekend operations, he said. Parking for those facilities will remain available.

GSA child-care centers are nongovernmental entitities, so they can legally remain open during a shutdown, GSA said. However, it's up to each center to make the final call. GSA is encouraging parents to check with their local centers to confirm their status, Cruz said.

3

Will feds get paid?

As with other shutdown issues, the question of who gets paid during a shutdown turns on whether the employee in question is essential or nonessential.

Excepted employees who work through the shutdown will be paid once Congress agrees on a deal to restore funding, although, depending on the length of the shutdown, their paychecks could be delayed.

That's raised the ire of the American Federation of Government Employees.

"We believe that the law is very clear: Without an appropriation, you really can't expend funds," said AFGE President J. David Cox in an interview on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp. "And for the government to be able to say, 'Oh, well these are essential and so we're going to require you to go to work but not pay you on payday' — give me a break. No other employer in this country's allowed to do that."

Cox said AFGE is considering taking the issue to court to ensure federal workers are paid on time.

However, backpay for furloughed federal workers is even more uncertain.

Following the last government shutdown in the mid-1990s, Congress, through special legislation, allowed for retroactive pay.

But that's no guarantee this time around.

"I think we all would agree it was a very different time and a very different Congress," Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said in a telephone briefing with reporters late last week. "But without exception, we believe that they should be paid, that it is just totally inappropriate and unfair to put them in any other position. And, so, we're going to do everything we can to make it happen."

Kelley said she's also concerned that employees will become complacent about backpay, having heard the "folklore" about the last shutdown.

"This is not a done deal and it will be a fight," she said.

Still, it will be a while before federal employees see a hit to their paychecks. Employees will still receive their paychecks on or around Oct. 15 — for hours worked through Sept. 30 — regardless of whether the government remains shut down. According to OPM and OMB guidance, payroll for the last pay period preceding a shutdown will still be processed, even during a shutdown — albeit with the minimum number of staff required to do so.

4

Places to go for help

There are a few resources federal employees facing shutdown furloughs can turn to.

The Federal Employee Education and Assistance Fund offers one-time $1,000 loans to federal employees facing financial hardship who need help paying basic living expenses.

The organization, however, was forced to tighten its criteria for issuing furlough loans this month after unprecedented demand this summer stemming from sequestration-related furloughs.

"Starting this summer, we saw requests for our loans double month-to-month," Robyn Kehoe, FEEA's director of field operations, told Federal News Radio. In August, FEEA paid out $300,000 in loans to furloughed feds; the typical monthly loan total is about $40,000, she added.

Still, the loans remain available for federal employees who are furloughed and face another extreme, financial hardship, Kehoe said. However, furloughed feds will have to wait until they receive their first "short" paycheck before applying for the loan.

The National Association of Federal Credit Unions said its member organizations are prepared to help federal customers.

For example, the Navy Federal Credit Union will advance active-duty military members their normal pay for Oct. 15 — even if the government remains shut down. After the government reopens and normal direct deposits resume, that amount will then be deducted from customers' accounts.

For civilian federal employees, the credit union is offering loan assistance and will expedite requests to increase credit lines on Navy Federal credit cards.

Finally, employees have legal recourse to appeal furlough decisions with the Merit Systems Protection Board. But that agency is, itself, facing widespread furloughs of its employees, and it plans to limit its operations to minimal functions, according to its online contingency plan.

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