Unions rally troops to head off shutdown

NTEU President Colleen Kelley calls stalemated talks a "distraction." NTEU President Colleen Kelley calls stalemated talks a "distraction." Jennifer Trezza
With the government facing a looming shutdown this Friday, federal labor unions are encouraging employees to contact their representatives in Congress on Tuesday and urge passage of a fiscal 2011 budget -- without severe cuts to agency services.

The National Treasury Employees Union and the National Federation of Federal Employees, which combine to represent 260,000 agency workers, on Monday announced plans for a Federal Employee Call-In Day.

All federal workers, their families and friends are being urged to contact their respective member of Congress on April 5 to voice opposition to a shutdown and to $61 billion in budget cuts passed by the Republican-controlled House. The unions said they would provide participants with a script they could follow for the calls, which are supposed to take place on the employees' free time.

"Our message is that Congress must do its job for federal employees to do their job," NTEU President Colleen Kelley said in a conference call with reporters. "It's as simple as that. I think that phone calls from thousands of federal employees can change the debate on this issue. Federal employees know better than anyone the detrimental impact a government shutdown and unrealistic budget cuts would have on the essential services the American people rely on."

Unless Congress agrees to a budget for the final six months of fiscal 2011, the existing continuing resolution will expire at 11:59 p.m. Friday, April 8, and the government will shut down. Hundreds of thousands of federal employees will be furloughed, and key services, including food safety inspection and tax preparation, will be dramatically curtailed, the unions said.

During the five-day government shutdown in 1995, Internal Revenue Service employees, including those processing tax returns, were furloughed, NTEU officials said. With two weeks until the April 18 tax deadline, a government shutdown could have dramatic implications for processing returns, Kelley said.

"This is an untenable situation," she said. "It's a distraction for the employees trying to do the work of the government. It's also forcing agencies to put so many actions on hold like hiring and training."

Obama administration officials have repeatedly declined to speculate on which federal employees would be deemed "essential" and be allowed to work during a shutdown.

A government shutdown would be particularly devastating to hundreds of thousands of federal employees -- roughly 85 percent of who live outside Washington -- and their broader communities, said NFFE President William Dougan.

He pointed to the Red River Army Depot in rural East Texas, which serves as the largest and highest-paying employer in that immediate area. Dougan noted furloughs would not only devastate depot employees and their families, but also would have serious impact on nearby supermarkets, restaurants and hardware stores that rely on government workers for much of their business. A shutdown lasting several weeks could lead small businesses to begin laying off workers, or possibly closing their doors altogether.

"The ripple effect of a government shutdown could very easily spread throughout the entire country, given the fragile economic recovery we are experiencing," Dougan said.

While the unions were harshly critical of House Republicans' proposed cuts to agency services, the labor groups also saved some venom for the administration, which has kept them in the dark about their shutdown preparations.

The Office of Management and Budget has refused to allow agencies to release any shutdown guidance spelling out which employees would be allowed to continue working during a shutdown and who would be ordered to stay home, potentially without pay.

When prodded by the unions and the news media, the administration has repeatedly said agency plans are not yet final and not ready to be released. The unions, however, argued that administration officials are playing politics and remaining deliberately secretive, in part because they do not want to engage in a discussion about which employees will be deemed "essential."

"From our perspective, federal employees are being held hostage because these plans are not being made available," Dougan said. "It's disrespectful to keep these folks in limbo until the last minute."

OMB did not respond to a request from Government Executive for comment on Monday about the status of the shutdown plans.

Another key unanswered question is whether furloughed federal employees would be paid during a shutdown, as they were in past stoppages. Congress would have to approve those payments and, given the budget deficit and mood of Tea Party Republicans, Dougan seemed doubtful. "It's a crapshoot," he said. "This issue is still up in the air."

The union has begun collecting the phone numbers of its members to set up a text messaging system in the event of a shutdown. Some federal employees, Kelley speculated, still might be asked to come to work next Monday, even without a budget passage, to initiate an "orderly shutdown."

Last week, another federal labor union, the American Federation of Government Employees, issued detailed guidance to its members, calling for major concessions from the administration in the event of a shutdown. AFGE wants furloughed federal employees to receive retroactive administrative leave, continued health care benefits and the opportunity to seek temporary employment elsewhere. NTEU and NFFE, however, have yet to seek similar concessions.

The NTEU is offering additional information about Tuesday's call-in on its website.

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