‘Confusion’ and ‘Surprise’: How Agencies and Employees Are Gearing Up for a Shutdown

At the State Department, most employees are exempt or excepted, meaning they will continue to work during a shutdown and will be paid after the government reopens. At the State Department, most employees are exempt or excepted, meaning they will continue to work during a shutdown and will be paid after the government reopens. Mark Van Scyoc/Shutterstock.com

Impacted federal agencies were preparing for a government shutdown on Friday, with different offices taking different approaches as they readied furlough notices and other formal procedures that occur during an appropriations lapse.

Some agencies will not notify workers until Wednesday that they are not in “exempt” status—and therefore will be sent home without pay. That's the first day most federal employees would report to work following the Christmas holiday. Employees, meanwhile, said they were monitoring the news and trying to clear up confusion as Congress appeared without a plan to avoid a partial shutdown.

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The National Science Foundation, for example, the agency without full-year appropriations that will furlough the highest rate of employees, will not send formal notices until Wednesday morning via email. Employees have already received some advanced notices to inform them of whether or not they would be exempt, a spokeswoman said.

At NASA, which is planning to furlough 95 percent of workers, one employee said the atmosphere is tense.

“My colleagues and I at NASA are facing the holidays with needless stress and apprehension,” the employee said. “The grinch is taking our COLA away, putting our next pay check in jeopardy just as we face our holiday credit card bills, and, for many of us, raising our taxes come April. A large serving of humbug for federal workers and their families.”

Jerry Brown, a spokesman for the Housing and Urban Development Department, which is also set to furlough 95 percent of its employees, said HUD was holding meetings Friday afternoon to finalize its course of action during a shutdown. He said the department was operating with the thinking that it was “fairly certain” furlough notices will go out.

At the State Department, most employees are exempt or excepted, meaning they will continue to work during a shutdown and will be paid only once the government reopens. The National Passport Center, for example, has continued to operate during every shutdown in recent memory. An email to employees Thursday sparked widespread confusion, however, when all State personnel received an email saying they were subject to a shutdown. Later that night, the department clarified that the email was sent in error and their office would continue to operate.

“There was some confusion yesterday,” an NPC employee said, calling the incident “not a great surprise.”

The Environmental Protection Agency has reversed course from its previous shutdown operations, staying completely open aside from its inspector general’s office. EPA has sufficient carry-over and no-year appropriations to last at least one week of a shutdown, the agency said.

“We've been told that we have sufficient funds to operate through Dec. 28; after that, it's an iffy proposition,” said one EPA employee. “People have been depressed even before the shutdown.  More so now given the prospect of a protracted politically induced shutdown.”

An employee at the U.S. Agency for International Development, which will furlough about half of its employees, said she expects to receive her furlough letter on Monday. She noted that she travels frequently for her job and her plans have already been disrupted due to uncertainty about fiscal 2019 funding.

The Agriculture Department issued guidance noting that certain activities would continue because they are related to law enforcement, the protection of life and property, or are financed through available funding, such as user fees. “For the first week of a potential shutdown, 61 percent of employees would either be exempted or excepted from shutdown activities. If the shutdown continues, this percentage would decrease, and activities would be reduced as available funding decreases,” the department noted in a press release.

Among the activities that would be shut down immediately “in an orderly fashion” are new timber sales, rural development loans, some statistical reporting, investigations of fraudulent activities, and some recreational sites.

The departments of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, State, Interior, Agriculture, Treasury, Commerce, Homeland Security and Justice, as well as other independent agencies such as NASA, EPA, the Office of Personnel Management and the White House Executive Office of the President, are currently operating under a continuing resolution set to expire Friday at midnight. About 345,000 federal employees at those agencies will be sent home without pay during a shutdown, while about 500,000 will continue to work with the guarantee of back pay once government reopens.

A bipartisan bill in the House with more than 60 cosponsors would ensure furloughed workers would also receive back pay once government reopens, which Congress has historically always provided. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., has vowed to push for similar legislation in the Senate.

“As we work to resolve this crisis, we must ensure that federal employees—who have nothing to do with this—are held harmless,” Van Hollen said.

Some Republican lawmakers have suggested that federal employees should not receive special treatment and they knew what they signed up for by entering government service, comments that drew the ire of federal worker advocates.

“These are real people who have real families and real financial obligations,” said Randy Erwin, president of the National Federal of Federal Employees. A shutdown means they are not getting paid. It means, at least for a short period of time, they don't know if they have a job."

J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said only lawmakers should shoulder any responsibility for a shutdown.

“Any insinuation that the hardworking veterans, law enforcement officers, and civil servants that comprise the federal workforce are to expect shutdowns or being forced to work without pay 'as part of the job' is absurd," Cox said.

Ross Gianfortune and Erich Wagner contributed to this report. This story has been updated with additional information. Image via Mark Van Scyoc/Shutterstock.com.

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