Union demands concessions in the event of a government shutdown

AFGE deploys its members to fight for retroactive administrative leave, continued health care benefits.

If Congress fails to pass another spending bill and the government shuts down early next month, furloughed federal employees ought to receive retroactive administrative leave, continued health care benefits and the opportunity to seek temporary employment elsewhere, according to guidance a federal employee union issued on Thursday.

With the Obama administration officials remaining tight-lipped about their preparations for a potential shutdown, the American Federation of Government Employees is taking a proactive approach in its planning, offering its members a detailed explanation of what the union sees as their rights and protections. The 15-page guidance also serves as AFGE's opening salvo in its negotiations with the administration regarding the prospect of potentially deep furloughs across the federal workforce.

"AFGE has one of the most talented lobbying [teams] in Washington," the union wrote. "But AFGE's fight to prevent budget, pay, pension and other benefit cuts won't be won on Capitol Hill alone. It will be won by AFGE members, other union members and our allies who rally, walk a picket line, and call, write and visit their lawmakers back home."

The guidance sets out an ambitious wish list in the event of a shutdown, including demanding the right to collectively bargain on issues related to furloughs -- most of them requiring decisions typically made by only by agency leadership.

If furloughs are required, then the union suggests those workers be allowed to receive retroactive administrative leave once an appropriations bill is passed. Agencies currently are not required to grant leave during a shutdown.

The union would lobby for additional language "protecting against any lost differentials and premium pay that the employee would have normally earned if not for the shutdown." Benefits provided through the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program should also continue uninterrupted, and prepaid costs, such as parking fees, should be rebated to furloughed workers, the guidance said.

The government currently is operating under a three-week continuing resolution that funds agencies through April 8. Unlike previous showdowns over the budget, the current situation makes another short-term spending bill seem unlikely as several Republican senators have said they will block legislation that does not fund the Defense Department for the rest of the fiscal year.

Administration officials, for their part, have been reluctant to show their hand and offer details of their shutdown preparations, though they concede discussions have been ongoing for months. Thus far, only Defense has publicly outlined a furlough policy.

During a meeting of the National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations earlier this month, labor unions decried the lack of information being shared about potential furloughs. "Tell them something," said National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley. "The silence is deafening."

According to Jeffrey Zients, Office of Management and Budget deputy director of management and council co-chairman, agency shutdown plans are not yet final. The process, he said, involves legal concerns that are not subject to union input, and labor would not be involved until a shutdown occurred and plans were implemented.

"We have every reason to believe this is not going to happen," Zients said at the council meeting. "If a shutdown becomes imminent, we'll advise and clearly communicate at that point."

But AFGE argued the administration should provide a list, well in advance of a shutdown, of all employees who will be deemed "essential" and therefore allowed to continue working. Federal law allows employees to challenge furloughs if less than 30 days' notice is provided, the union said.

On March 2, AFGE filed a Freedom of Information Act request with OMB requesting a copy of all agency shutdown plans. OMB has not responded to the request, said union spokesman Tim Kauffman.

The AFGE guidance lists a host of federal positions that potentially could be deemed essential, including jobs conducting foreign relations, providing for benefit payments and performing of contract obligations for which funding already has been allocated.

These essential employees would be allowed to work during a shutdown but are not guaranteed to receive payment for their services. Administration officials have not publicly stated whether essential employees will be reimbursed for the hours they are required to work during a shutdown. Complicating matters, essential employees likely would be deemed ineligible for unemployment compensation during this period.

The union argued these employees must be given assurances that they will be paid in a timely manner after a new appropriations bill is enacted. The administration also should consider allowing employees to rotate into shifts of essential workers, to alleviate the costs of travelling to and from work.

The union expects other major concessions to help compensate unpaid essential employees. For example, employees who are unable to obtain day care at an affordable price should be allowed to bring their children into the office, with the agency providing space for child care, the guidance stated.

No matter how negotiations proceed, observers agree there is little doubt that federal employees, both union members and nonmembers, will suffer financially in the event of a shutdown, at least in the short term.

AFGE suggested members could help collect charitable donations from within the community for those who are furloughed, assist with maintenance work such as car repairs and help those adversely affected to apply for unemployment assistance. The labor group also recommended asking utility companies to give furloughed employees a temporary reprieve from paying their bills until the shutdown has ended.

"We have no idea how long this will go on for," Kauffman said. "And a lot of our members are lower-wage-grade workers."