Federal contractors are also growing frustrated with the ongoing budget impasse and the lack of communication from agencies, said Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president of the Professional Services Council (PSC). (Chris Maddaloni / Staff file photo)
Even as Congress flirts with shutting down government every two or three weeks, federal employees and contractors are complaining they are being kept in the dark on how they would be affected if a shutdown happens.
Federal union leaders all but begged administration officials last week to share the government's shutdown plans, but they were left empty-handed.
In a March 16 meeting with administration officials led by Office of Management and Budget (OMB) deputy director Jeffrey Zients, exasperated union leaders said they can't get answers from agencies about which employees would be deemed essential and kept working during a shutdown and which would be furloughed. The labor leaders said their members want to know what will happen if Congress can't strike a deal to fund agency operations for the rest of fiscal 2011 and the government has to suspend most operations.
"The silence is deafening," said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU). "Nobody's answering anything. It's not fair to employees."
The Senate approved a three-week continuing resolution last week — the sixth stopgap spending bill for fiscal 2011 — that will keep the government operating until April 8. But lawmakers are growing impatient with Congress' inability to resolve the budget dispute, and some expect this will be the last temporary spending measure.
If the government does shut down, hundreds of thousands of federal employees will likely be furloughed. Some feds — such as those who provide health care, protect life and property, support vital military operations and are in law enforcement — will be deemed essential and stay on the job in an unpaid status. Most experts anticipate that employees who are asked to continue working would get paid retroactively once a funding deal is agreed upon; however, that is not a certainty.
The administration earlier this year ordered agencies to update their shutdown plans, but has refused to publicly release those plans.
NTEU's Kelley told Zients that she heard his agency is holding up release of the shutdown plans. Zients said the plans aren't finalized and won't be released before they're "fine-tuned." He said OMB doesn't have to approve the plans, although OMB is coordinating reviews of the plans to make sure agency general counsels are interpreting legal statutes consistently.
Bill Dougan, national president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said he finds it incredible that after Congress has passed several stopgap continuing resolutions to avert a shutdown, agencies had not completed their contingency plans as Zients claims.
Zients maintained that the administration still expects a shutdown will be averted, and said the administration will talk to unions if one becomes inevitable.
"If it looks imminent, we'll crank it up to the next level and get these plans done," Zients said. "We'll take it a day at a time."
But union leaders such as Greg Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, said they're starting to feel the heat from below.
"I go back to my local leaders and talk about partnership and forums, and they say, ‘Hey, get real,' " Junemann said. " ‘We've got the sword of Damocles over our heads here as we're working. We want answers back from you.' "
The administration didn't give unions a straight answer on whether employees who are ordered to keep working without pay during a shutdown would eventually be paid. Office of Personnel Management General Counsel Elaine Kaplan said it remains an "outstanding legal issue" that was left unresolved after the last shutdowns in 1995 and 1996, since Congress voted then to repay all federal employees for the shutdown time.
An info blackout for contractors, too
Federal contractors are also growing frustrated with the ongoing budget impasse and the lack of communication from agencies, said Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president of the Professional Services Council (PSC).
"We're getting little bits and pieces of information as it's slowly leaked out," Chvotkin said. "Mostly on the internal processes, and when some of the decisions might be made [on which contracts are essential during a shutdown]. But we don't have any more hard facts."
Chvotkin said the contracting community is "nervous and anxious" about the effects a shutdown would have on it, but is not panicking. He said the government should tell contractors and employees more about what a shutdown would mean, even if they can't release the full contingency plans.
"It'd be so much easier if they'd put the facts out as best they can," Chvotkin said. "Even if it's bad news, they want to know what they can expect and plan for. It's easier to plan when we have facts than it is when we're just guessing."
Chvotkin suspects political motivations are keeping the administration quiet during high-wire negotiations with Republican lawmakers. If the White House releases the plans, Chvotkin said, that could be interpreted as a signal that they welcome a shutdown.
He said the PSC and government contractors are pressing agencies to speed up the processing of payments to companies before they get caught up in a possible shutdown.
Michael Hager, the former acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, said he suspects the administration is holding its shutdown plans back so unions can't pressure them on the details.
"They could potentially say, ‘Why would this group not be essential?' " Hager said. " ‘We're equally as important as this other group that was able to hold onto their jobs.' "
Hager also said he suspects the administration doesn't want to hurt its political support from labor unions by unveiling shutdown plans that could send hundreds of thousands of union workers home without pay. The growing uncertainty of how long a shutdown might last and what it would entail could damage unions' relationships with Democratic lawmakers and prompt them to support other candidates in the next election, he said.
"This is dangerous territory to be in," Hager said. "The unions may see it as a sellout of federal jobs. They could put on incredible heat, and with the union purse, they could just really create significant turmoil if they don't like the terms of the document."