Shutdown uncertainty generates angst and rumors among federal employees

Joe Davidson
Columnist September 25, 2013

The Social Security Administration tells its story in “History of SSA 1993-2000.” It isn’t the most gripping reading, but it does provide lessons for federal employees and their agencies as they endure another period of government by brinksmanship.

Chapter five explains how SSA dealt with the 1995 government shutdown. With another partial shutdown ready to spring in days, the history provides insight on the need for preparations.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

Preparations undoubtedly are underway, but the administration and its agencies are not providing enough information to help soothe the angst that yet another government funding crisis causes for taxpayers and federal workers.

That might change Thursday morning when, union leaders say, administration officials plan to brief employee organizations.

But as of late Wednesday, “I’m not hearing a lot, which is disconcerting,” said Bill Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees. “There’s been little or no communication from agencies to labor. We haven’t been notified about their plans or anything. . . . If employees are not hearing from the agency . . . it really puts them in a kind of limbo.”

Here's what some agencies have said about their specific plans in case of a government shutdown.

That’s where most of SSA’s 66,000 employees found themselves on Nov. 14, 1995, when a shutdown forced the agency to furlough 61,415 workers while keeping 4,780 on the job.

“The majority of the employees retained were in direct service positions to ensure the continuance of benefits to currently enrolled Social Security, SSI [Supplemental Security Income] and Black Lung beneficiaries,” the “History” document reports.

SSA officials quickly realized they had retained too few.

“It was evident to Agency executives after a couple of days that the shutdown was not acceptable, and that it was affecting some of its most vulnerable people, namely its elderly, disabled, and low-income recipients,” according to the text. “It became very clear that it was important that SSA reopen its offices to conduct business, even during the shutdown. There was tremendous concern internally, as well as within the White House that SSA not providing service would cause harm to too many Americans.”

On Nov. 20, President Bill Clinton announced that the shutdown was not acceptable and his administration was calling about 49,700 SSA staffers back to work. Recalling them was the right thing to do, but it also gave ammunition to administration critics. Using SSA as an example, Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.) said at the time that “the execution of the shutdown was, in many instances, disorganized and illogical, at best, and oftentimes [a] chaotic experience,” according to a Congressional Research Service report.

Sending workers home, only to so quickly call them back, does not conjure visions of good planning. Is SSA better prepared this time? Are any agencies?

We can only hope, because so many aren’t saying, at least not yet.

Budget expert Stan Collender, author of "The Guide to the Federal Budget," explains why he's certain that the government will shut down next week. (The Washington Post)

When asked about the 1995 furlough and today’s preparations, SSA’s press office said to ask the Office of Management and Budget, which said nothing.

The general silence leaves federal employee union leaders frustrated and their members unsettled.

“There has been no communications with employees other than a very general notice,” said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. Those general notices included similar wording from different agencies. Treasury and Defense, for example, each sent their staffs letters that said “prudent management requires that we be prepared for all contingencies.”

But what are those preparations? The letters didn’t say.

The information vacuum produces its own story.

“People start inventing their own realities,” Dougan said, recalling unfounded rumors he’s heard about layoffs and military base closings.

The situation is troubling because staffers know some will be furloughed during a shutdown and some won’t. Employees want to know whether they are on the list to keep working.

This comes on top of a three-year freeze of their basic pay rates, scheduled to end in December, and recent budget cuts, known as sequestration, which caused unpaid furlough days for many workers.

“They’re tired,” Kelley said, “and they are angry.”

One place where more information could have been communicated was through the labor-management forum that President Obama created in 2009. But the forum has been a disappointment, at least to Gregory J. Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers.

In a letter to government and union officials, he said, “I’m more than a little distressed about the way things are shaping up toward the next potential shutdown of the Federal government.”

Junemann said the forum, at one point, provided a way to “communicate more effectively with the key players on the other side of the table.”

Now, however, “my relationship with the majority of my management counterparts on the National Labor-Management Roundtable can best be described as non-existent,” he wrote.

“As we face another government shutdown, I find I don’t know — actually ‘know’ — who I’m dealing with on the management side. I don’t know who is trustworthy. I don’t know who I can confide in; whose word I can take at face value, and whose I should view with measured skepticism. All I know is names and bios I read on web pages.”

It sounds like labor-management communication shut down before the government did.

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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