Both individual employees and agencies continue to employ a range of strategies to cope with the partial government shutdown as it enters its second month.
Many thousands of employees who have been furloughed have applied for unemployment compensation even though a bill that has been signed into law guaranteeing that they will get back pay once funding is restored means they will have to repay those benefits at that time. Those benefits will provide some income for the meantime, at least.
Several states have eased the process by waiving, for furloughed federal employees, the normal requirement that unemployment compensation recipients actively be looking for work as a condition of eligibility.
Not unemployed, just unpaid
The administration however has told states that federal employees who are continuing to work without pay due to the funding lapse are not to be deemed eligible for those benefits because they are not unemployed, just unpaid. Those employees always have been guaranteed back pay when funding is restored because the government has incurred an obligation to them.
In addition, many employees have reported taking side jobs and hundreds have asked for financial help through “fund me” type online solicitations. In both cases, ethical restrictions may come into play—primarily, conflict of interest rules for the former and gift acceptance rules for the latter. Previous guidance is scant and the Office of Government Ethics, one of the closed agencies, has not clarified those issues. Numerous charities, community organizations, financial institutions and state and local agencies meanwhile have started special grant, loan and other assistance programs.
Furloughed workers report they are spending their time doing volunteer work, taking classes and in some cases starting to look for other jobs. Those still working report they are feeling the strain of bearing the costs of going to the job, as evidenced by increasing numbers who are calling in to say they can’t make it to work—seen most prominently at the TSA where the rate recently hit 10 percent.
Agencies meanwhile have been both calling employees back to work and sending more out on furlough, depending on policy decisions and availability of funds separate from regular appropriations. The latest is the State Department, which this week restored all its employees to paid status, calling back those who had been furloughed, after finding funds to use for the current pay period. That may apply only until that period ends February 2, however; the department said it is still reviewing it situation.
Others that have recalled some employees—although still unpaid—include Interior, Transportation, Agriculture, Treasury and the IRS. That has some members of Congress to question their justification for deviating from their previously announced determinations of which positions are “excepted” from furloughs.
Lawsuit set for hearing
The NTEU union also is challenging the recalls, adding that issue to a complaint already pending in federal court asserting that compelling federal employees to work without pay is unconstitutional. While the judge already has refused to issue an emergency order, another hearing is set for next week.
More on furlough rules for federal employees at ask.FEDweek.com