Like a marriage showing the strain of money troubles, the relationship between federal employees and the Obama administration is fraying as the possibility of a government shutdown grows stronger.
Generally, that relationship has been a good one, despite the two-year pay federal pay freeze pushed by President Obama. But the current source of friction is less about money than about information.
With a shutdown looming, Uncle Sam had acted, at least until late Tuesday, like he could see, hear and say no evil when it came to telling the public — and federal employees in particular — what closing the government would mean for them.
“It’s getting our goat a little bit,” John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), said at a morning news conference.
Then at about 3 p.m., administration officials, including Jeff Zients, the government’s chief performance officer and a deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, and John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, held a conference call with union leaders to provide some information.
Some questions were answered, but certainly not all. Perhaps many others could have been, had this process started earlier.
Zients and Berry, under pressure from labor leaders, told them that agencies will notify workers on Wednesday about the possibility of a shutdown and direct them to questions and answers posted at OPM.gov. On Thursday and Friday, employees will be told whether they are essential — or “excepted from the furlough,” as the OPM puts it — and therefore would work during a shutdown. Non-essential workers who show up Monday would have four hours to close their operations before going home.
The OPM site includes much more information. The Q-and-A posted Tuesday evening does not tell employees whether they are essential, because that information will come from agency heads. But according to the OPM, excepted employees are those “performing work that, by law, may continue to be performed during a lapse in appropriations.”
Those who do work will be paid, but only after Congress and the president approve a new funding measure. For the employees who do not work, the OPM cannot say if they are out of luck or not:
Q: Will employees who are furloughed get paid?
A: Congress will determine whether “non-excepted” employees receive pay for the furlough period.
The federal officials provided no estimate of the number of workers who might be furloughed, but Randy Erwin, legislative director of the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE), estimated that “90 percent or more of the 110,000 federal employees we represent will be subject to furloughs.”
Because so many questions remain, the AFGE says it will press for answers through a lawsuit it filed in federal district court last week in an attempt to force the administration to come forth with basic information it should have provided before now.
Despite all the public debate, the charges flung back and forth daily between Republicans and Democrats, and “the gravity and notoriety of this matter, nearly all Federal Executive Branch agencies have failed or refused to release their contingency plans to either the public or to federal employee unions such as AFGE,” the suit says.
The union wants agency contingency plans and “a description or list of employees or positions that would be required to work without pay in the event of a shutdown.”
The AFGE filed a Freedom of Information Act request March 2 with the OMB seeking that information, then filed suit March 30 when it was not provided. The FOIA letter also requested information on the operations that would continue during a shutdown and the employees needed to keep them going.
The information employees need is important not just for their sake, but for the public’s as well. What offices would be open, what services would continue and what operations would carry on is information that everyone, not just federal workers, needs to know.
“It’s been very, very frustrating,” Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, told reporters on Monday. Added NFFE President William R. Dougan: “I think it’s disrespectful to hold these folks in limbo until the last minute and expect them to be at the beck and call of these agencies.”
Elaine Mitchell is one of those folks. She is a Social Security employee and AFGE official in Falls Church who said she was considered nonessential during the shutdown of 1995 but essential during the shutdown of 1996. She was paid both times.
Mitchell doesn’t know what officials would call her this year or if she would be paid during a shutdown. She does know she is tired of politicians “playing with our lives.”
She can’t afford to go without pay, she said: “I’m a struggling middle-class worker. . . . I live paycheck to paycheck.”
Staff writer Eric Yoder contributed to this column.