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Furlough Facts

How do furloughs affect federal employees’ benefits?

On Wednesday, thousands of employees from the Transportation Department returned to work after being on nonpaid furlough for two days because of a congressional dispute. While it is not immediately clear whether employees will receive retroactive pay, the furlough will not adversely affect most of their benefits, such as annual leave, retirement, promotions and health insurance.

But how would a longer furlough affect employees' benefits?

According to the Office of Personnel Management's Web page on furloughs, an employee has to be on "nonpay" status for at least two weeks before benefits are threatened. In many cases, a furlough would have to be as long as several months before doing any significant damage; although, depending on the situation, Congress could enact changes to the law to ensure that employees don't suffer.

Employees can stay enrolled in the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program for one year after being furloughed, and either can chose to keep paying the premiums or have them withheld from their pay upon a return to work. FEHBP enrollment can continue even if the agency can't cover its premium costs. Depending on the state, such workers also could be eligible for unemployment insurance. Once a furlough begins, all paid leave, scheduled or unscheduled, is canceled.

Employees also cannot take out loans from their Thrift Savings Plan accounts. Depending on their job title and description, a worker might be able to find another job during the furlough. The only condition, according to OPM, is the job does not violate any legal restrictions on federal employees regarding outside employment, or any policies of the employee's agency. Although they're not being paid, furloughed employees are still, legally speaking, government workers and any conflict-of-interest rules still apply.

Work stoppages due to political or legislative inaction are rare, but not unprecedented. The most well-known example is the budget impasse that consumed Congress and the White House in 1995, sending thousands of nonessential government workers home for nearly a month. Ultimately, that situation was resolved, and federal employees affected by the shutdown were repaid for those weeks -- costing the government an estimated $400 million.

Beth Moten, legislative director for the American Federation of Government Employees, said she hoped public outrage over the recent Transportation furlough would remind Congress of the consequences of inaction.

"When it happens, people have been aghast, and they realize how valuable these services are," Moten said.