Thousands of Feds Currently Working Could Still Face Furloughs

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Thousands of federal employees currently on the job could be sent home if the government shutdown drags on, according to agencies’ planning documents and statements from department leaders.

Some agencies have kept offices open due to leftover appropriations from fiscal 2013, though in many cases those funds could dry up within the next week. As offices are forced to shutter their doors, more workers would be forced off the job.

The State Department, for example, employs about 70,000 employees, with just 300 of those currently taking unpaid leave due to the shutdown.

“This scenario cannot continue indefinitely,” Nicole Thompson, a State spokeswoman, told Government Executive. “An extended shutdown would force additional closures and furloughs.”

Thompson would not elaborate on exactly how many employees would face furloughs, but added it would negatively affect the department’s ability to deploy diplomacy and respond to national security imperatives. Marie Harf, another State spokeswoman, reiterated the risk of more furloughs at a press briefing Monday.

“I would underscore that every day this goes on longer, we risk having that number go up to the thousands,” Harf said. “Thankfully, we’re not there yet. But every day this goes on longer we get closer.”

At the Defense Department, about 90 percent of the 350,000 employees originally furloughed have been brought back due to legislation Congress passed on the eve of the shutdown. Those employees, however, are not necessarily safe from re-entering furlough status.

Many of the employees brought back work in acquisitions. They do not, however, have any money to spend.

“If the lapse of appropriations continues, many of these workers will cease to be able to do their jobs,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned in a memo. “If there comes a time that workers are unable to do their work, I will be forced to once again send them home.”

Some agencies are simply still carrying out their original plans. The Veterans Affairs Department excepted 96 percent of its workers. About half of the nearly 15,000 employees who did face furloughs came from the Veterans Benefits Administration. VBA took the first week of the shutdown to phase out its operations, and finally shuttered its offices -- and sent home its employees -- on Tuesday.

Most furloughs to date have occurred in the executive branch of government. Soon, however, they could expand to the judiciary. The Congressional Research Service estimated the judicial branch had enough funds to sustain activities for 10 days after a shutdown. After that period, however, federal courts could only maintain excepted functions.

“Such staff performing ‘essential work’ functions would report to work in a non-pay status while other staff would be furloughed,” CRS said.

House Republicans have attempted to bring back employees at various agencies through a series of piecemeal measures, though the Democrat-controlled Senate has rejected those efforts, calling instead for a complete reopening of government. 

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