What’s in a word? Plenty, if you’re a federal employee and the word is “nonessential.”
That’s the term commonly, although not officially, used for employees who would be furloughed in a partial government shutdown, such as the one currently threatened by the deadlock over funding for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
In a similar situation in 2011, the Obama administration estimated that of the 2.1 million federal employees outside the self-funding U.S. Postal Service, 800,000 would be furloughed.
Neither group would be paid for the duration of the shutdown, with those staying on the job almost guaranteed to be paid later but the outcome uncertain for those kept home.
That issue aside, being called nonessential is a bit like being branded with a scarlet letter “N.”
“It makes our job on the Hill a lot more difficult,” said Jessica Klement, the legislative director of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association. “There were members of Congress the last time we went through this two years ago who said: If these people aren’t essential, why are they there? Why are they employed? We say these people have a job to do, and that job is dictated to them by Congress.”
John Palguta, vice president for policy of the Partnership for Public Service, said the issue arose at a professional development conference that the nonprofit group held Tuesday for federal human resources professionals. The Partnership has a content-sharing relationship with the Washington Post.
“They are offended at people who suggest that what they’re doing need not be done,” he said. “None of them consider the work they do extraneous and not essential. Federal employees are very sensitive to being the brunt of criticisms of government.”
The stigma of the nonessential label was a main topic of a House hearing amid the most recent partial government shutdown in late 1995.
Said Walter Broadnax, then-deputy secretary of Health and Human Services, “The first casualty of a shutdown is the morale of our employees who were incorrectly termed ‘nonessential.’ I want to make the point clearly that all HHS employees are essential. During a lapse in appropriations, some employees may continue to work as a matter of law, others may not; a distinction made by law, not by the value of their work.”
Officials of the Treasury Department and Social Security Administration expressed similar sentiments. “I also feel that the term ‘nonessential’ must be eliminated from the federal vocabulary. I can’t think of a term more misguided or misleading,” said then-Rep. Constance Morella (R-Md.).
Government shutdown policies in their present form date to a 1980 Justice Department determination that only certain operations legally can continue without an appropriation. Later that year, the Office of Management and Budget interpreted such functions to include, among certain others, “essential activities to the extent that they protect life and property.”
That has been the basis for a string of OMB memos since then, most recently one issued last week. The memos speak of essential activities, however, not of essential employees.
Formally, under OMB and Office of Personnel Management policy, employees in functions that must keep going are “excepted,” as in excepted from furlough, and those sent home are “non-excepted.”
“Excepted” employees are not necessarily the same as “emergency employees” who must report for work in emergency situations such as severe weather. Employees not subject to a shutdown furlough because they work in functions not affected by an appropriations lapse, such as the Postal Service, are called “exempt.”
Regardless of official terminology, Palguta said, “People revert to the old language. For some the term nonessential means it’s not important. Which is not the original intent.”
“Words do matter,” he said.