A Guide to Pay and Benefits During Furloughs

A weekly roundup of pay and benefits news.

As disruptions continue as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, talk of furloughs has started to arise at agencies that rely heavily on fees for funding, particularly at the Homeland Security Department.

Last week, officials at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced that they will be sending employees reduction-in-force notices beginning Friday to warn them of administrative furloughs in July if Congress does not approve emergency funding. And  union officials at Customs and Border Protection said they fear similar measures could be taken at that agency's Office of Field Operations, where roughly 8,000 CBP officers are funded by fees collected at ports of entry.

Here is what federal workers in fee-funded agencies can expect in terms of pay and benefits if they find themselves on the receiving end of a furlough notice, according to 2017 guidance published by the Office of Personnel Management.

Salaries: Obviously, when an employee is furloughed, they are not paid for their time in furlough status. Employees cannot request to be furloughed so as to reduce the burden of furloughs on their colleagues, and they cannot volunteer to do their job in a nonpay status while on furlough.

Raises: Generally, agencies cannot deny or delay the approval of within-grade or step increases for furloughed employees. But an extended furlough could impact when those pay increases kick in.

Leave: Federal workers may not substitute any paid leave, including annual, sick, military or earned credit hours, in place of their administrative furlough. Meanwhile, agencies have the discretion to decide whether or not to furlough employees who are already scheduled to be on leave without pay, since both furloughs and leave without pay are considered to be "periods of nonpay status."

Although furloughs often will not impact an employee's ability to accrue leave, there are some exceptions that occur if a furlough extends over a longer period of time, specifically when the total furlough exceeds 80 hours within a leave year for a full-time employee. This rule does not apply to part-time workers.

"When a full-time employee with an 80-hour biweekly tour of duty accumulates a total of 80 hours of nonpay status from the beginning of the leave year (either in one pay period, or over the course of several pay periods), the employee will not earn annual and sick leave in the pay period in which that 80-hour accumulation is reached," OPM wrote. "If the employee again accumulates 80 hours of nonpay status, he or she will again not earn leave in the pay period in which that new 80-hour total is reached."

Unemployment: Federal workers who are furloughed may be eligible for unemployment compensation in some states. Rules on this will vary depending on the state.

Health care: Unlike previous furloughs, either due to shutdowns or sequestration, furloughs that are issued this year will not put federal employees' health insurance at risk. The fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act included language guaranteeing that federal workers' Federal Employees Dental and Vision Insurance Program benefits would not lapse even if they are furloughed for at least two consecutive pay periods.

Retirement benefits: Administrative furloughs generally will not affect annuity benefits under the Civil Service Retirement System or the Federal Employees' Retirement System, unless a furlough lasts at least six months.

The way in which CSRS and FERS annuities are calculated is by averaging the highest three years of an employee's salary, using employees' rates of basic pay, rather than the gross salary earned in a year. And the methodology provides service credit for up to six months of an employee in nonpay status per year.

"If a furlough period does not cause an employee to be in a nonpay status for more than six months in a calendar year, the furlough period will be included as creditable service in determining the employee's total creditable service used in the annuity computation," OPM wrote. "If the total amount of time an employee spends in a nonpay status in a calendar year exceeds six months, the amount of nonpay status in excess of six months in a calendar year will not be creditable for retirement purposes."