With less than a week left for the Obama administration and Congress to reach an agreement to raise the debt ceiling before the potential for default, many federal workers are worried: Will they still have jobs if the federal government shuts down? What will happen to their retirement pensions? Not all the answers are clear yet.
Many of these workers’ concerns were addressed by a Post Q&A. But in an online chat with The Washington Post’s Joe Davidson and Eric Yoder Wednesday, one word kept popping up in reader’s questions over and over again: furlough.
According to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, shutdown furloughs happen “when there is a lapse in annual appropriations,” aka, when the government runs out of money. During a furlough, employees could be paid or unpaid, depending on if the government decides to devote enough money to do so, Yoder said.
Depending on how long a government shutdown lasts, it’s possible that agencies could make employees continue working with the expectation of being paid later. Agencies could also designate certain employees as emergency workers, having them keep working while everyone else stays home. Either way, pay is iffy.
“One issue is that pay cycles are every two weeks,” Yoder said. “If any default is over in that time frame, and if Congress and the White House agree that employees should be paid for any furlough time, then effectively it would not make any difference. Those are ifs, however.”
When asked if furloughs might be the new normal for federal employees, Davidson replied, “I don’t think furloughs and RIFs [Reductions in Force] are the new normal, but they might be around for a period into the near future and that includes through next year’s budget process.”
In other words, furloughs might not be going away for a while, so federal workers might want to get used to this risky roller coaster ride.
Those seeking information on what will happen during a furlough will find little comfort. During the government shutdown talk last spring, government officials provided little information about shutdown protocol until the last minute.
“I assume a similar scenario will play out this time,” Davidson said. “We’re getting closer and closer to the last minute every day.”
In a note of hope, however, employees can take solace that in the chance of a funding lapse, furloughed employees should still be covered by their health insurance plans.
“But of course, that’s an assumption,” Yoder said. “We have tried repeatedly to get OPM to answer questions about this and they have refused.”
When discussing what will happen to federal employees if the federal government is shut down, one reader wrote in, “What do we lose? Our faith. In the system. In our political ‘leaders.’ That we’ll ever be able to buy a house or pay off our student loans. I’m even questioning whether to stay in America or start looking for work in Europe or Canada.”
And that, Davidson suggested, is a perfect example of how money may not be the biggest concern for the federal government during this time of uncertainty.
“This note reflects a cost to the system that cannot be quantified with dollars and cents.”
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