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Unease, frustration grip federal workforce as shutdown looms

Sep. 30, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments
Congress Meets As Government Shutdown Looms
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called 'pointless' a House measure that would tie a temporary funding extension to a one-year delay of the Affordable Health Care Act. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

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Federal employees across the country began the week Monday in a stew of apprehension, anxiety and frustration as hopes dwindled for a last-minute deal needed to stave off a partial government shutdown in barely 12 hours.

“I think most everyone is scared about how they will pay their bills if this shutdown goes on for a while,” Lois Cusick, the wife of a Defense Department engineer in Indiana, said in a Facebook message.

Just at DoD, some 400,000 employees — or about half of the civilian workforce — will be sent home on unpaid furloughs if a partial shutdown begins Tuesday, Comptroller Robert Hale said late last week. While the remainder will keep working, their paychecks could be delayed until the government reopens.

At the Internal Revenue Service, more than 90 percent of 94,500 employees will be furloughed during a shutdown, the agency said in an updated version of its contingency plan released Friday. The Environmental Protection Agency also plans to send most of its 16,200-strong workforce home, according to its revised plan. At the White House Office of Management and Budget, 118 employees, about one-quarter of the total, would keep working.

The outlook was better for employees at public safety and law enforcement agencies, the planning documents indicate. Most operations at the Justice and Homeland Security departments, for example, would continue. Also spared furloughs would be many Office of Personnel Management staff, including those who process pension checks in the agency’s retirement services division. The Postal Service, which gets no taxpayer money for operating expenses, would stay open as normal.

Agencies published their revised plans as Congress remained deadlocked over the terms of a stopgap spending bill needed to keep the government fully open past the end of the current fiscal year Monday. If a shutdown occurs, it would be the first major disruption since the 1995-96 closings that, at their peak, temporarily threw some 800,000 federal employees out of work. The number of furloughed workers could be at least that high in this round, although OMB has not yet furnished a public estimate. There are about 2.1 million federal employees, according to the most recent OPM statistics.

In its latest version of a fiscal 2014 continuing resolution approved over the weekend, the Republican-run House tied a 2˝-month funding extension to a one-year delay in implementation of the 2010 health care overhaul commonly known as Obamacare, as well as repeal of a tax on medical devices that helps fund the law. The House also voted to assure members of the military that they will be paid on time in the event of a shutdown.

But the White House and congressional Democrats have insisted that any short-term spending bill leave the president’s signature domestic accomplishment untouched.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., labeled the House measure pointless, and the Obama administration threatened a veto. The Democratic-controlled Senate could vote as early as Monday afternoon to reject the bill, leaving House Republican leaders to decide whether to take any last steps to head off a shutdown before midnight.

For federal employees caught in the middle, the reaction was often deep frustration.

To Congress, “we’re not even people, we’re just bartering chips,” Doug Rule, an Army program manager at Fort Carson, Colo., said in a phone interview.

Even if a compromise is reached, the threat of a shutdown has already proved to be a drain on staff time and productivity. At DoD, planning has probably consumed thousands of hours of staff time, Hale said last week.

Moreover, “people are worrying right now about whether their paychecks are going to be delayed, rather than focusing fully on their mission,” he said.

And a fresh crisis is building over raising the federal borrowing limit. The government is expected to hit the current $16.7 trillion ceiling by Oct. 17, according to the Treasury Department. If lawmakers balk at increasing it by then, Treasury officials would have to make painful choices between such competing priorities as paying federal employees on time, sending out Social Security checks to retirees and servicing interest payments on government bonds.

While the administration has not said how they would make those decisions, the result could be more furloughs, Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union told reporters in a conference call Friday.

“It’s kind of like a one-two punch type thing,” said Hugh Clayton, a technician at the National Archives and Records Administration. “We are not in control of our own fates.”

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