Some just wouldn't stop working

By Stephen Barr and Bill McAllister
Thursday, March 3, 2011; 12:24 PM

From The Washington Post archives

Published: November 20, 1995, Monday, Final Edition

They were the phantoms of the Great Government Shutdown.

When federal offices closed last week, numerous white-collar employees sent home on furlough stuffed their briefcases and bags with files from the in-box, figuring they could take a project or two home and, at the least, work in peace and quiet. Other employees supposedly on furlough were sneaking into their offices, apparently so they could meet upcoming deadlines at work.

Said one furloughed worker: "We were told not to fall down the stairs if you come to work," presumably because injuries would not be covered by insurance. He, like others interviewed, asked not to be identified.

Supervisors were instructed not to put pressure on anyone to complete their work, he said. Even so, many of his furloughed colleagues were showing up in the office.

This is, after all, Washington, where virtually everyone hates to miss work. Work is status, work is power, and everyone likes to think he or she is essential.

But work by any employee on furlough because of a shutdown has been deemed illegal. The 19th century Anti-Deficiency Act forbids agency managers to accept volunteer labor or other services. Violators can be punished with a $ 5,000 fine, imprisoned for not more than two years, or both.

Unlike other federal workers, employees at the White House were permitted to volunteer during a shutdown. But at a price.

White House volunteers would have their salary changed to zero, which carries "substantial consequences," as a White House memo explained. A zero salary meant the White House workers would: lose their health insurance and life insurance; lose the prospect of any back pay that Congress might grant furloughed workers; and cease accruing sick leave and vacation time.

Still, many among the rank and file wanted to work. Last week, a public affairs officer at one agency, bored with filling out graduate school applications, went to his office to sit in on an interview that a senior official was giving to a newspaper reporter.

"They told me I could be arrested or something," he said, "but I was going nuts. I got my car worked on. I made some calls. But I was going crazy," especially because his agency is fighting for survival in Congress.

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