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Government Executive Editor in Chief Tom Shoop, along with other editors and staff correspondents, look at the federal bureaucracy from the outside in.

The 'Nonessential' Label: Cruel and Wrong

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Fay Wagstaff of El Paso, Texas. sits on the front steps of the closed Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Many Smithsonian employees were deemed "nonessential" during the shutdown. Fay Wagstaff of El Paso, Texas. sits on the front steps of the closed Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Many Smithsonian employees were deemed "nonessential" during the shutdown. Carolyn Kaster/AP

GovExec’s Eric Katz has been crunching the numbers on furloughs, and one thing is very clear about this government shutdown: It’s affecting various agencies in dramatically different ways.

At the Housing and Urban Development Department, 96 percent of employees have been sent home. At the Education Department, the figure is 95 percent. Among smaller agencies, the National Science Foundation has furloughed 99 percent of its workers. And at the Office of Government Ethics, just one lone employee is keeping the lights on. At Veterans Affairs, on the other hand, only 4 percent of employees are off the job. At the Justice Department, only 16 percent are.

In popular parlance, there’s a word for all of those who have been forced to take some unwanted time off, with no guarantee of back pay: “nonessential.” The essential folks -- such as half the civilians at the Defense Department -- are still at their desks, working.

The problem with this essential/nonessential label is that it’s outdated, cruel and wrong.

The proper terminology is “excepted” vs. “non-excepted” from shutdown furloughs. (And don’t get me started on those who don’t fall into either of these categories but are nonetheless classified as “exempt” from furloughs.)

The Office of Personnel Management’s Guidance for Shutdown Furloughs is very clear on this point:

In the context of shutdown furloughs, the term “excepted” is used to refer to employees who are funded through annual appropriations who are nonetheless excepted from the furlough because they are performing work that, by law, may continue to be performed during a lapse in appropriations. Excepted employees include employees who are performing emergency work involving the safety of human life or the protection of property or performing certain other types of excepted work.

It’s commonly believed that federal officials changed the labels from the old essential/nonessential distinction so as not to upset the delicate feelings of those in the latter category. But it’s fairly obvious there’s another reason: It’s simply wrong to characterize those who have been sent home as not essential to the operations of government. Their work is non-essential in only a very narrowly defined way -- that is, it doesn’t directly involve “the safety of human life or the protection of property.”

On top of that, agencies have creatively come up with ways to keep operations running that aren’t exactly essential to the protection of life and property -- such as passport processing -- but which would create major annoyances for the public and a drag on the economy. That leaves everybody remaining in the non-excepted category as looking like their work doesn’t matter.

In fact, there are plenty of HUD and Education employees sitting at home today whose work is essential to the mission of their agency -- and thousands more at agencies like NASA and the Securities and Exchange Commission, who also have huge percentages of their workforces idled. It’s just that in a shutdown, our elected officials have decided they don’t care whether that kind of essential work continues. 

Tom Shoop is vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversees both print and online editorial operations. He started as associate editor of Government Executive magazine in 1989; launched the company’s flagship website, GovExec.com, in 1996; and was named editor in chief in 2007.

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