No back pay for furloughed feds predicted

If a government shutdown occurs on Friday, furloughed federal employees who are deemed nonessential will likely not receive back pay, according to a key Democratic lawmaker.

Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., whose Northern Virginia district is home to tens of thousands of federal workers and contractors, expects agencies to issue at least 900,000 furloughs if a budget deal is not worked out by 11:59 p.m. on Friday.

A senior administration official pegged the expected furlough total at closer to 800,000 -- roughly the same number issued during the 1995 government shutdown. But during that shutdown, the Defense Department was exempt from furloughs because Congress already had passed the Pentagon's appropriations bill. If the government stops operations this week, civilian Defense officials will not be spared, the official said.

During past shutdowns, furloughed federal employees have been paid for their time, whether they were deemed essential or not. But back pay must be approved by Congress, and given the record-breaking federal deficit and the mood of Tea Party Republicans, Moran does not expect that pattern to continue.

"Federal employees need to understand this is not 1995, when we closed down and they did not go to work and they were fully reimbursed," Moran said in a Wednesday conference call with reporters hosted by the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association. "I have a very strong conclusion after talking with some of these guys there will be no reimbursement."

Excepted personnel -- including uniformed military members -- who are deemed essential because they perform functions necessary for the safety of human life and protection of federal property, will be paid retroactively for work, the senior administration official said.

The impact of a shutdown, particularly if it lasts for several weeks or months, could be devastating for many federal employees. "It will have a very severe impact upon federal employees' ability to make their mortgage payments and car payments," Moran said. "This is very, very serious."

It's not just the lack of a paycheck that will hurt employees. Louis Bornman, a GS-13 operations research analyst with the Army in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., plans to retire this summer. But a furlough -- he expects to be deemed nonessential -- would reduce his retirement savings, which is based on the highest average pay an employee earned during any three consecutive years of service. These are typically the final three years of service.

"I will be paying for this forever," Bornman said.

A shutdown also could be devastating to many small businesses who rely on payments from the government, Moran said. "Small contractors are holding on by their fingernails, and some will likely fall off the cliff," he said. "There will be a number of small contractors that will go out of business."

Agency leaders began notifying staff on Wednesday about their shutdown contingency plans. The Office of Personnel Management also has provided guidance on furlough-related questions on its website.

The notification to civilian agencies said, "Should it become necessary to implement our contingency plans, you will receive formal notice from your supervisor no later than Friday, April 8 regarding the designation of your position and furlough status."

But the notification process could be slower at some Defense Department agencies. For example, employees at the Defense Contract Audit Agency were informed that if the government shuts down, they should arrive at work on Monday morning, April 11, to learn their status.

"At your office, you will find senior supervisors will have divided mission-essential functions -- those in direct support of warfighting operations or property protection -- from nonmission-essential functions," J. Philip Anderson, DCAA's assistant director of resources wrote in a message to staff. "Mission-essential positions, and the staff assigned to them, are designated 'excepted.' All others are nonexcepted. All nonexcepted personnel will receive from their manager or supervisor a letter explaining that they are now on furlough. Then these personnel will depart work in a controlled but timely manner. All personnel will be paid for the day on 11 April."

The memo said DCAA would finalize its list of excepted and nonexcepted employees after receiving final guidance from Defense Secretary Robert Gates' office.

Furloughed DCAA workers will not be able to use their agency-issued BlackBerry devices and any previously approved leave time will be immediately canceled, the memo said. "If an excepted person is on leave, they will become nonexcepted and will not be paid for leave during a furlough," Anderson wrote.

Agency personnel deployed to combat regions will be considered excepted personnel. Other overseas personnel face the potential of furloughs, the guidance said.

"It is very demoralizing to think you're going to be laid off and not paid," Bornman said. "People will have to work harder in the near future because time requirements don't change. This ultimately will cost the government more money."

Federal labor unions have been pressing the Obama administration to be more forthright about shutdown contingency plans. But Wednesday's guidance from civilian agencies was insufficient for Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, who wants to notify her members as quickly as possible about potential furloughs. "There are still a lot of unanswered questions," she said.

The union said it would be working with agencies to ensure that the notification process and the method for determining an excepted employee "are the most effective and comprehensive as possible."

Moran's staff plans to host a town hall meeting in Virginia on Thursday evening to discuss the impact of the shutdown on the federal workforce, contractors and the local economy. The meeting will take place from 7:30 to 9 p.m. at the Francis C. Hammond Middle School, located at 4646 Seminary Road in Alexandria. The event is free and open to the public.

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