The Trump administration is supporting back pay for federal employees set to be furloughed during a government shutdown, making the announcement just hours before a deadline for Congress to act to keep agencies open.
The administration is seeking to limit the number of employees who would face an immediate furlough, senior administration officials told reporters Friday night, looking to keep agencies temporarily afloat with unobligated funds that remain valid when the current continuing resolution expires at midnight. Agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and Federal Communications Commission said they have sufficient carry-over funds to last about a week after a shutdown.
"Some [agencies] may have a little money to stay open for a few days, but they're not real sure," said J. David Cox, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees. "I think [EPA] Administrator Pruitt has said EPA can stay open for probably the next week . . . Sure, there's hooking and crooking to try to stay open, but if Congress doesn't appropriate money, it's only a lifeline for a few days or a little while next week, and then we're in shutdown mode."
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Fear of a shutdown remained high on Capitol Hill on Friday evening. Republican leadership in the Senate announced a vote for 10 p.m. on a House-backed, four-week continuing resolution, but appeared to be short of the necessary votes to send the measure to President Trump’s desk.
Administration officials accused their predecessors under President Obama of intentionally sitting on potential carry-over funds in order to maximize the impact of the October 2013 shutdown. Asked for specific evidence of such actions, the officials said they were “not here to litigate the past.”
A former Obama administration official familiar with planning for the 2013 shutdown called the assertion “complete and total bullshit,” adding the Trump administration was simply trying to “downplay the impact of their own failure to pass a budget.” The former official said holding back funds “could hurt people” and that was “not how we approached governing.” Current senior administration officials said they believed agencies have consulted with the Justice Department for approval of their plans to use carry-over funds.
The administration officials said they were not clear on how many agencies would be able to stay open due to the leftover funds. The officials pointed to the agency contingency plans, but those plans do not comment on that issue and the decision would only be able to be calculated just prior to an appropriations lapse occurring.
The officials were similarly unclear on exactly how many employees would be furloughed if a shutdown occurs. A Government Executive estimate based on updated contingency plans, as well as the plans agencies executed during the 2013 shutdown, found about 860,000 employees would be sent home without pay. That figure could be reduced as agencies scrape together funds to stay open for the initial days of a shutdown.
The officials said there have been so many shutdown threats lately, they were uncertain about when to start taking this one seriously. They held a call a week ago with agency leaders telling them to prepare, as they have four times this fiscal year. Within the last few days, they said, they realized a shutdown was more likely this time around and the administration began ramping up its preparations. Part of that process, they said, included "preparing notifications for staff."
Whether all federal employees are aware of their furlough status during a shutdown is unclear; senior administration officials said agencies began notifying employees Thursday night, but employee representatives said only some had received notices and so far those were only informal.
“It’s effectively the same process, but I would characterize its status [on Friday] as really informal,” said Tony Reardon, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union. “The formal furlough notices will go out, at least as I understand it, at least this weekend . . . I think agencies are informally contacting everybody today. It’s not as though people don’t have any information at all.”
However many employees are ultimately furloughed in the event of a government shutdown, the White House has said it would back paying all of them. Employees forced to work during a lapse in appropriations are guaranteed to receive their normal paychecks once government reopens, but back pay for furloughed feds requires congressional action. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., has already introduced the Federal Employee Fair Treatment Act (S. 2274) to ensure workers on forced unpaid leave are paid for their time off.
“Each time Republicans have brought our country to the edge of a shutdown of the federal government, I have worked to remind my colleagues that federal workers did not cause the budget crisis and these dedicated public servants in every community across the nation—and their families—should not be put in financial jeopardy because of partisan maneuvering,” Cardin said. “This legislation aims to take federal workers off the table as pawns in the political games being played by Republicans, including President Trump, as we near yet another deadline for keep our national government functioning for the American people.”
In recent history, Congress has always acted after a shutdown to ensure furloughed feds receive back pay. NTEU Legislative Director Jill Crissman said that in a call with labor leaders Friday morning, OMB officials said they would explore expediting post-shutdown paycheck processing.
“We did raise the issue of OMB working with payroll providers to make sure they would try to make sure that paychecks could be done as soon as appropriations are enacted, rather than waiting for the next full payroll cycle normally,” Crissman said. “They committed to looking into that.”
Heather Kuldell contributed to this report.