Possible goverment shutdown is ‘scary’ time for workers

April 6, 2011

For Tonya Robinson, April 8 might as well be called “Frightening Friday.”

Midnight Friday is the bewitching hour. If Congress fails America by not providing funds to keep the government open, then it will shut down and shut out 800,000, or maybe more, federal workers.

“It’s a scary situation,” she said.

Ironically, Robinson is one of the employees who helps raise money to keep the government going. But like many of her colleagues around the country, the Stone Mountain, Ga., IRS customer service agent would be locked out, because Uncle Sam would not be able to afford to pay her.

Then Robinson could not afford her needs.

“Some payments would definitely be missed,” she said. “The bills keep on coming. They don’t stop.”

Robinson, a 34-year-old single mother, already has borrowed from the Federal Employee Education and Assistance Fund to help meet child-care expenses. A shutdown with no pay, or even delayed pay, would be tough.

No pay or delayed pay remains a big question for federal employees.

During the shutdowns of the mid-1990s, employees were paid for the days they missed. If a shutdown occurs this year, history might not be a guide.

“Federal employees need to understand that this is not 1995, when we closed down and then people didn’t go to work and then they were fully reimbursed,” Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.) said Wednesday.

Based on conversations with his Republican colleagues, Moran said, “It is highly unlikely they [federal workers] will ever be reimbursed. So, if this goes on for two to three weeks . . . it’s going to have a very severe impact upon federal employees’ ability to make their mortgage payments, car payments, etc., etc. This is very, very serious.”

Congressional Democrats would want to reimburse federal workers who did not work, Moran said, but the majority House Republicans “are far more anti-government in terms of their mind-set than even they were in. . . what was called the Gingrich Revolution (for then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich) in ’95 that shutdown the government.”

But Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), a tea party caucus member and chairman of the House federal workforce subcommittee, might surprise Moran. Although Ross goes overboard in his criticism of President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), by saying they “think a shutdown is good politics,” Ross adds: “I, for one, would not be in favor of furthering that harm by denying hard-working people back pay.” 

The Office of Personnel Management said Congress would determine reimbursement for employees who do not work during a shutdown. Those who are considered essential, or excepted from the furlough, “will be paid when Congress passes and the president signs a new” funding measure, according to OPM.

But, clearly, federal employees should not count on a Congress that has been so derelict in its duty to do what’s right. If members of Congress were judged the same way as other federal employees, their performance would be deemed “unacceptable,” and they’d be placed on a strict performance improvement plan.

Despite the agreement Moran and Ross have on paying furloughed workers, the American Federation of Government Employees doesn’t think staffers should take that pay for granted.

In a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., the union raised the 13th Amendment to the Constitution — the one that abolished slavery — to question the plan to require essential government employees to work during the shutdown.

“There are serious legal implications in ordering federal employees to work, possibly indefinitely, without pay or even a legally binding promise that they will be paid in the future,” said the letter from AFGE President John Gage.

Although the letter acknowledges circumstances that allow essential federal employees to work without immediately being paid, it also said Congress is “under no requirement to appropriate funds in any particular way in the future, by, for example, providing for payment to individuals who may have worked during a funding lapse.”

That payment “might occur only at the mercy of Congress,” the letter added. The Justice Department had no comment on the letter.

Given the attitude some Republicans have expressed toward federal employees, asking whether they would be willing to pay all workers whom the Obama administration deems essential is not an unreasonable question. But that doesn’t mean AFGE’s strategy is universally shared.

National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen M. Kelley said her organization thinks “there are other legal avenues with more likelihood of success and are pursuing those.”

Whatever legal and political avenues are pursued, employees like Robinson and other Americans want Congress to do its job and fund the government.

“If I’m not working,” she said, “there is nothing.”

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