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Shutdown’s impact on services, furloughed employees could be enormous

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By Joe Davidson

About 800,000 government employees will be shut out of work beginning at midnight Friday unless Congress approves funding to keep the government open. Although it’s called a shutdown, most of the 2 million federal workers, plus additional postal employees, would continue working. Nonetheless, the impact on government services and furloughed employees could be enormous.

To discuss what a shutdown would mean to the federal workforce, two Obama administration officials, Jeffrey Zients, the government’s chief performance officer and a deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry talked with the Federal Diary on Thursday. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Q: Pay for employees who are furloughed would have to be approved by Congress. Is there any real guarantee that these people will get paid?

Zients: There is no guarantee, Joe, in that it is handled by Congress. The administration supports federal employees who are furloughed to get paid retroactively.

Q: For those who are considered essential, or excepted from the furlough, Congress would have to approve pay for them as well?

Zients: They will not be receiving paychecks during the period when the government is not funded, but as soon as the government is funded, they will be paid for the work that they did.

Berry: That would not require an act of Congress.

Zients: It’s the same as the military. The military will continue to operate. The military will continue to earn money, but not receive their paychecks until the government is funded.

Q: The American Federation of Government Employees expressed concern that Republicans might say they aren’t going to approve paying all the people the Obama administration says are essential if they think that number is too high. Is there any danger of that?

Zients: It is my understanding that those who are working because they are excepted will be paid retroactively.

Berry: And it doesn’t require any further congressional action.

Q: Will employees be able to seek employment during a furlough, those who are not working?

Berry: The answer is, yes, they can work, as long as it is not in conflict with their responsibilities as a federal employee. Someone managing contracts could not go and work in that field or with somebody they were supervising. Could they work at Starbucks? Yeah.

Q: Would they have to get approval from their agency’s ethics officer?

Berry: If it’s clear-cut, they can work. If they have a question about it, they should ask their agency’s ethics officer.

Q: Will the ethics officers be furloughed?

Berry: There will be supervisors available, so people should approach one of the excepted employees with that question.

Q: Will contractors continue to work and get paid?

Zients: Contractors who are funded through multiyear appropriations or other monies than the annual appropriations ... those working on these excepted areas, the protection of life and property . . . they will have earned that money and will be paid retroactively.

Q: How are people being notified if they are excepted from the furlough or not?

Berry: Today [Thursday] all agencies have begun to notify their employees as to their status, whether they are excepted or not. Everyone should know their status by close of business today. There may be some spillover.

Zients: I think some agencies that have overseas operations, including the State Department and [Department of Defense], will likely notify employees across the next 24 hours, including [Friday].

Q: So Thursday they will know their status. The second step is they will be notified they are being furloughed. When will that happen?

Zients: That cannot happen until we know that the government has reached that unfortunate point of not being funded, so that’s 12:01 Saturday morning. From that point, agencies will start to communicate with their employees about their furlough notice.

Q: Is everybody expected to go in on Monday morning for a four-hour period to shut down their operations?

Berry: Each agency will be able to determine what is best for their unique circumstances, but there is a range of options here. Where it is determined that because of the complexity of their shutdown process, it’s more than just turning their computer off and requires their actual presence, then agencies can arrange for [employees reporting for four hours] Monday, that’s assuming we are in a furlough status. At the same time . . . now we have a lot of employees that telework. If you can manage your shutdown in an orderly way from home on Monday, then that can be worked out with your supervisor.

Zients: If employees are coming in on Monday morning, the four hours is a ceiling. So if you have up to four hours of orderly shutdown activities, then you can be compensated for the full four hours. If your shutdown activities are less than four hours, you will be compensated for the amount of time it takes you to do your orderly shutdown.

[Note: A Thursday memo from OMB Director Jacob J. Lew to agency heads says agencies may allow employees who do not have telework agreements to conduct shutdown activities from a remote location if those activities, such as “adjusting voicemail and e-mail to reflect current work status,” can be completed in about 15 minutes.]

Q: Will retired federal employees still receive pension payments?

Berry: Yes.

Q: How might a shutdown affect the morale of federal employees? What can you do about it?

Berry: All managers across government are trying to keep their employees well informed. Keeping them as well informed as we can helps to alleviate that anxiety. Pushing it this close, whether it’s going to happen or not, it’s still going to have a morale impact. We’re going to make sure people know we respect them for the job they are doing for the country, and certainly the president and everyone on his team understands these are people’s lives and livelihoods. They support families and have bills to pay, mortgages due and car payments, just like every other American. Keep in mind these are people who make $40,000, $30,000 a year. They don’t have large savings to work on.

Q: Will the shutdown affect the people in the lower grades more than the higher grades?

Berry: I think there’s no question that this is going to have a more serious impact and tougher impact on lower grade employees.

Q: Is there anything that can be done after the shutdown by the government to help alleviate the impact on lower income employees?

Zients: The administration will support having furloughed workers paid.

Berry: That will be the most productive way to help get people back on their feet again.

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