Employees’ Furlough Fate During the Shutdown Isn't Written in Stone

SSA brought back 50,000 employees during the 1995 shutdown, to deal with a benefits backlog. SSA brought back 50,000 employees during the 1995 shutdown, to deal with a benefits backlog. Bradley C. Bower/AP File Photo

Three days after the government shutdown in 1995, the Social Security Administration brought back 50,000 employees from furlough to deal with a backlog of benefits the agency lacked the personnel to deliver. In the run up to the shutdown, SSA had not properly accounted for its legal obligation to distribute earned government benefits, resulting in the furloughs of employees needed to carry out essential government functions.

While an identical situation is not likely to happen again -- the Office of Management and Budget specified in its governmentwide guidance that “administrative activities that are necessary to disburse benefit payments under entitlement programs, such as social security benefits” are permitted to continue during a shutdown -- some federal employees could be asked to come back to work after initially facing furloughs.

“It’s not ironclad,” said John Palguta, vice president for policy at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. “There’s room for circumstances to change.”

Some agencies have already recalled a portion of their workers. The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced it brought back some employees in anticipation of Tropical Storm Karen.

“FEMA has recalled currently furloughed employees necessary to serve functions of the agency that protect life and property,” the agency said.

A FEMA spokesman said about 200 employees were recalled for the storm, about 100 of whom have already been furloughed again. The rest will go back into non-pay status in the coming days. If more emergencies present themselves, FEMA would continue to engage in the recall and re-furlough process, the spokesman said.

John Mahoney, an attorney with Tully Rinckey, a law firm that focuses on federal sector employment, said agency preparations taken prior to the shutdown have made furlough recalls on the scale seen 17 years ago highly unlikely this time around. After the 1995 shutdown, then-chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., said “the execution of the shutdown was, in many instances, disorganized and illogical, at best, and oftentimes a chaotic experience.”

With agencies issuing detailed shutdown contingency plans in the days before appropriations dried up, Mahoney said “it’s pretty clear cut this time.”

Congress could also intervene to bring employees back on the job. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has announced the department will recall “most” of the 400,000 civilian employees it originally furloughed, due to a law Congress passed on the eve of the shutdown. 

Absent congressional action, however, only an emergency event like the tropical storm could lead to a recall of furloughed employees. While federal employees’ furlough fate is mostly cemented, Palguta said that for some, the situation remains “fluid.” 

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