The Homeland Security Department has begun notifying the employees who would face furloughs if the agency shuts down at midnight on Friday of their impending unpaid, non-work status, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said Wednesday.
The notifications have gone out on an informal basis, Johnson said at a press conference, rather than the formal notices that are required under federal statute in the event of an appropriations lapse. While Congress appears to be working toward an agreement to avoid a DHS shutdown, Johnson said his employees deserve advance notice on whether they will be coming to work next week.
“I think they’re entitled to know what is going to happen next week in their daily lives,” Johnson said. He added that he’s been consistently sending out departmentwide emails to keep the workforce apprised of the situation, including one this week when he “didn’t really have anything to report.”
“I remain optimistic that Congress is going to work this out,” he added. “But we have to plan, we have to prepare.”
Johnson held the press conference with two of his three predecessors -- former secretaries Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff, both Republicans -- who joined the current DHS chief in calling on Congress to fund the agency.
Ridge, the first ever head of DHS, said the message from Congress is clear: “’We appreciate what you do, but we don’t appreciate you enough to fund you.’”
Chertoff took issue with those in Congress and elsewhere who have said a DHS shutdown would come with minimal impact, as most of its employees would still report to work. The 15 percent facing furlough, Chertoff noted, are all necessary to support the people “who man the front lines.” He added the agency’s ability to provide grants to local communities and help them with disaster recovery would be severely hampered.
The three former and current DHS leaders said they are taking the mere threat of a shutdown personally. Recalling a conversation he had with Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate, Johnson said Fugate told him he was particularly upset because he felt as though his employees “are being treated as pawns, as though they don’t matter.”
Ridge added: “To me it’s become very, very personal. These people go to work every day trying to make us safer and more secure.”