Shutdown threat raises pay, benefits issues for federal employees

September 24, 2013

Shutting down the government wouldn’t mean that employees and retirees can shut off the bills they have to pay. Following are the answers, as best as they can be determined at this point, to some of the main questions they are asking about their pay and benefits.

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Q. If there’s a government shutdown, will I get paid?

A. Office of Personnel Management guidance prepared in the shutdown threats of 2011 notes that some employees will be kept on the job – so-called “excepted” employees – and others will be sent home for the duration.

“Agencies will incur obligations to pay for services performed by excepted employees during a lapse in appropriations, and those employees will be paid when Congress passes and the President signs a new appropriation or continuing resolution,” it says.

A recent Office of Management and Budget memo says much the same: “Without further specific direction or enactment by Congress, all excepted employees are entitled to receive payment for obligations incurred by their agencies for their performance of excepted work during the period of the appropriations lapse,” the memo says. “After appropriations are enacted, payroll centers will pay all excepted employees for time worked.”

The OMB memo did not directly address pay for “non-exempt” employees. The OPM guidance says that “Congress will determine whether furloughed employees receive pay for the furlough period.”

Similarly, a recent Congressional Research Service report said, “Federal employees who have been furloughed under a shutdown historically have received their salaries retroactively. However, there appears to be no guarantee that employees placed on shutdown furlough would receive such pay.”

(Congress paid federal workers retroactively after the last shutdown. For more on that issue, view this article by Post reporter Lisa Rein.)

Q. Who’s “exempt” and who’s not?

A. That’s up to individual agencies. The OMB memo told them to review plans they made in 2011. It said that in general, agencies need to keep open operations that:

  • provide for the national security, including the conduct of foreign relations;
  • provide for benefit payments and the performance of contract obligations under no-year or multi-year contracts; and
  • protect life and property.

The latter category covers activities including medical care; safe use of food and drugs and of hazardous materials; air traffic control and other transportation safety functions; protection of government property; law enforcement and prison operations; emergency and disaster assistance; and activities to protect the monetary system, the power grid and research property. Also exempt are self-funding operations, most notably the U.S. Postal Service.

The most recent estimate from the administration, done in 2011, is that all but 800,000 of the 2.1 million non-postal federal employees fall under one of those exemptions.

Q. If I’m furloughed, why can’t I take annual leave or other paid time off instead?

A. Because that would create a debt obligation to the government not payable under the Antideficiency Act if no appropriation has been made. This includes a requirement to cancel any paid leave that already had been scheduled.

Q. Could I get outside employment?

A. Technically, yes. However, furloughed federal employees remain subject to ethical conduct rules, including those governing conflicts of interest with outside earnings. Additional rules apply to certain occupations and certain agencies; before even entering discussions about outside employment, check with your agency ethics office.

Q. What’s the status of employee benefits?

A. Coverage under the federal employee health insurance program will continue, with the employees’ share accumulating until they return to paid status. Coverage under the life insurance program also continues, without cost to the employee. For the long-term care and vision/dental insurance programs, enrollees must continue to pay the premiums; those paying through payroll deduction will be billed directly if the unpaid period lasts a number of weeks.

Q. What about retired employees?

A. Federal retirement payments, like payments such as Social Security benefits, fall under the “mandatory” budget category not funded through annual appropriations and thus not affected by these kinds of funding deadlocks. According to the OPM document, federal retirees “will still receive their scheduled annuity payments on the first business day of the month.”

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