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What a shutdown would mean for you

Feb. 28, 2011 - 06:00AM   |  
A staffer leaves the EPA on his evening commute in Washington, D.C.
A staffer leaves the EPA on his evening commute in Washington, D.C. (Chris Maddaloni / Staff)

With no agreement yet in Congress on how to fund agencies after the continuing resolution expires March 4, the threat of a government shutdown appears likely. The Federal Times staff researched your questions about how pay, annuities, benefits, facilities, technology and contract work would be handled during a shutdown. Here's what we found out:

Q: What happens when the shutdown begins?

A: You'll probably have to go into your office briefly Monday, March 7 (or earlier if you work on the weekend) to receive your instructions. If you're an "excepted" employee, you'll keep working. If not, go home and wait for further instructions.

Pay and benefits

Q: If I am excepted and have to keep working, will I be paid?

A: Most likely yes, but not right away. Excepted employees will work on a non-pay status and will presumably be paid retroactively by Congress when the funding dispute is resolved.

Q: Can I volunteer to keep working, even though I'm not being paid?

A: No. If you're not specifically excepted from the shutdown, you are prohibited by law from working.

Q: What if I am not excepted? Will the government reimburse me?

A: Hard to say, that's up to Congress. After the 1995-96 shutdowns, Congress passed a bill reimbursing furloughed employees for their pay missed during the furlough period, even though they did not work. But political realities on Capitol Hill may keep that from happening. The new House Republican majority is stressing the need for deficit reduction, and several leading Republicans think federal employees are overpaid at a time when many private-sector workers are suffering. They could decide the government can't afford to reimburse feds for time they did not work.

Q: What about my paycheck for the last pay period before the shutdown begins? Will I get that?

A: Yes. The government will keep enough staff on hand to process paychecks for work done through March 4.

Q: Can I receive unemployment benefits if furloughed?

A: Yes, if the shutdown lasts long enough. Each state handles unemployment benefits differently, so you should check your state's rules and requirements.

Q: What about my federal health benefits and retirement annuity? Will I still get them?

A: Yes. Even if the government does not pay premiums to health insurers on time because of the shutdown, your health coverage will continue. And because the government has largely automated the process for issuing retired employees' annuities, those checks will be sent out on time.

Q: And my Thrift Savings Plan contributions?

A: Since TSP contributions are determined by one's salary, they will also halt while the government is shut down. If you're an excepted employee who keeps working, your contributions as well as your agency's matching contribution and additional 1 percent automatic contribution for that period will be deposited in your TSP account when you're paid after the shutdown ends.

All participants will be able to transfer money among TSP funds and change their contribution allocations during the shutdown. If you're 59 or older or facing a certifiable financial hardship, you may be able to make an in-service withdrawal. In-service withdrawals are taxable and an early withdrawal penalty may apply.

If you have a loan outstanding, your repayment period will be extended by the number of nonpay pay periods.

Q: Can I use paid leave during a shutdown?

A: No.

Q: What if I'm already on paid leave when the shutdown begins?

A: Your leave will be canceled and you will be placed on nonpay status.

Q: Can I take another job while the shutdown is in effect?

A: Yes, as long as it doesn't violate ethical or other agency rules prohibiting certain types of outside employment. If you think you'll take another job during the shutdown and worry that it could violate those rules, you should check with your agency's ethics officer before the shutdown begins.

Q: What about my next step increase? Will it be affected by the shutdown?

A: Possibly, depending on how long the shutdown lasts and what your current step is. If the shutdown lasts more than two weeks, your within-grade increase to steps 2, 3 or 4 will be delayed. If it lasts more than four weeks, increases to steps 5, 6 or 7 will be delayed. And if it lasts more than six weeks, increases to steps 8, 9 or 10 will be delayed.

Federal operations

Q: How will agencies decide who stays on the job and who is furloughed?

A: Under Office of Management and Budget Circular A-11, agencies have to prepare shutdown plans that estimate the number of "excepted" employees who will be kept on board during a shutdown because they are:

In the military, law enforcement or engaged in the direct provision of health care.

Paid from a source other than annual appropriations.

Involved in protecting life and property.

Office of Personnel Management regulations and Justice Department legal opinions also come into play.

Based on past experience, air traffic controllers, FBI agents and government doctors would be more likely stay on the job. Agencies whose missions don't fall in the OMB exceptions could end up furloughing most of their employees.

Q: How many federal employees were furloughed during the 1995-1996 shutdowns?

A: During the first, from Nov. 13-19, 1995, an estimated 800,000 were sent home. Near the end of the second, which ran from Dec. 15, 1995, to Jan. 6, 1996, an estimated 284,000 were furloughed while 475,000 kept working, but in nonpay status.

Q: Were all agencies equally affected?

A: No. About 86 percent of Veterans Affairs Department employees were kept on, for example, while almost everyone at the Housing and Urban Development Department was initially sent home.

Q: What would happen this time?

A: Neither agencies nor OMB are furnishing estimates on the number of employees who would be excepted, versus those who would be furloughed. Most agencies have also declined to release copies of the contingency plans that are supposed to contain those numbers.

Q: Could agencies make work-force adjustments after the shutdown begins?

A: Based on the 1995-96 experience, possibly. The Social Security Administration, for example, initially furloughed all but 4,800 out of some 66,000 employees. After services began to suffer, however, the agency recalled 49,700 workers.

Q: Will mail delivery be affected?

A: No, because U.S. Postal Service operations are not dependent on congressional appropriations.

Information technology

Q: Can I check e-mails if I'm not retained?

A: Logging into your government e-mail account is considered work and, thus, not allowed for employees who are not authorized to work during a shutdown. Agencies may suspend e-mail accounts and network logins for those employees.

Q: Will I have to turn in my government-issued smart phone if I am not retained?

A: It will be up to each agency. Agency managers may also simply suspend those smart phone accounts for those not retained.

Q: What IT contractors are most vulnerable to a shutdown?

Those supporting federal websites not considered essential.

Q: Will the government shut down its networks and systems?

A: Not if they are mission critical or used to protect human life and property. Computer systems that are classified or that operate critical infrastructure will not shut down.

Q: What IT staff will continue working during a shutdown?

A: Some network and systems administrators, cyber security personnel and those needed to shut down systems are among those who will need to be retained.

Federal facilities

Q: Will my office building be open if the government shuts down?

A: If your building has enough excepted employees, it will stay open. If your building closes, minimum staff will stay on hand to protect the building and its property. The Federal Protective Service, if it already guards your building, will continue to do so.

Q: Will ongoing facility renovations continue?

A: Some will, some won't. Renovation work will continue only if the building is open to contractor crews, if funding for the work is already appropriated and authorized, and if there are federal inspectors working and available to oversee the work if inspections would be necessary.

Q: Will new federal construction continue?

A: In many cases, no. But if contractors are working with previously awarded funds and do not need direct federal supervision, work will continue.

Q: What about the private shops and restaurants in my office building complex?

A: Mixed-use buildings with food courts and private businesses, such as a credit union branch office, may remain open. However, because of reduced business, they may decide not to remain open.

Federal contracts

Q: Does all contract work stop?

A: Contract work can continue if it is funded by previous years' appropriations, by multiple-year appropriations, or through revolving funds. Agencies can also allow work to continue for:

Activities they have statutory authority over, such as the Defense Department's authority to contract for needed food, fuel and medical supplies.

Specific duties imposed on an agency, such as paying Social Security benefits, which are not funded through annual appropriations.

Emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property.

However, work could stop if contractors need to access closed federal facilities or furloughed federal employees.

Q: How will a shutdown affect fixed-price contracts?

A: Most fixed-price contracts can continue because they are funded at the time the contract is created, meaning funds have already been appropriated and the contract will not require new funding.

Q: How will a shutdown affect cost-type contracts?

A: Most cost-type contracts are funded incrementally. So while work could continue if it was previously funded, future funding will not be available and work would have to stop until money becomes available. Most cost-type contracts also include a "limitation of funds" clause that acts as a de facto stop order in the event the government does not have money to pay for the contract.

Q: If my contracted employees cannot work, will the government pay my costs if I continue to pay them?

A: Probably not. While Congress has retroactively paid federal employees after previous shutdowns, it has never done so for contract workers.

Federal Times research by Question">Sarah Chacko, Question">Nicole Blake Johnson, Question">STEPHEN LOSEY, Question">Andy Medici and Question">Sean Reilly.

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