Update: As expected, Congress failed to pass a spending bill and all nonessential government work has stopped. If you are a federal worker, you might want to back away from the iPhone.
September 30, 2013 – As you are no doubt aware, there is a very real possibility of a government shutdown starting tonight at midnight. The situation is complicated and too politically charged for us to comment in depth, but here’s the short version. The government fiscal year ends at midnight on September 30. Every year congress must pass a series of bills called “appropriations” to fund federal agencies. So far, none of the appropriations bills have been approved, meaning that without a stop-gap funding measure, the agencies will run out of money tomorrow and be forced to scale back or stop operations. House Republicans have said that they will pass no such bill unless the Affordable Care Act (sometimes called “Obamacare”) is delayed or defunded. With the state health insurance exchanges, made possible under the Act, scheduled to begin selling policies tomorrow, it is unlikely that the Senate or the President will accept this condition. That’s why the nation is bracing for a shutdown.
What it Means for Federal Workers
A lot has been written about how a possible shutdown will impact the nation’s citizens. Essential services, like the military, law enforcement and foreign embassies will continue to function. Medicare and Social Security will not be interrupted. However, at least 800,000 federal workers in less crucial roles will likely be furloughed. This is mandated by the Antideficiency Act which, among other things, prohibits employing federal personnel, except in emergency, under a lack of appropriations. There can be serious implications for those who break the law.
According to the Government Accountability Office, “Federal employees who violate the Antideficiency Act are subject to two types of sanctions: administrative and penal. Employees may be subject to appropriate administrative discipline including, when circumstances warrant, suspension from duty without pay or removal from office. In addition, employees may also be subject to fines, imprisonment, or both.” (Emphasis mine.)
Furloughed employees will not receive paychecks during the shutdown and there’s no guarantee they will ever receive payment for the time they are on furlough. Although back payment was issued after the last shutdown in 1995.The personal and economic impact of the shutdown will depend on it’s duration. The 1995-1996 shutdown lasted for 28 days.
What’s Modern About this Shutdown Situation?
In 1995, the most widely used “mobile device” was the Palm Pilot. It was primarily used as a contact manger and calendar, not as a communications tool. In those days, very few people had Internet connections at home and only about one in 10 adults in the U.S. were going online, according to a Pew study. Back then, people accepted that work was done in an office, usually between 8:00 AM and 6:00 PM. This made the concept of a furlough fairly straight forward If your office is closed, you can’t work. But what about today? Remote and mobile work are standard practice. In fact, the federal government has seen a 421% growth in the number of employees who telecommute since 2005 and is one of the largest employees of teleworkers. Those who don’t telecommute are no less dependent on mobile devices, many using government issued BlackBerries or iPhones. The President is even sometimes refereed to as the “E-mailer-in-chief.”
The Antideficiency Act treats remote and in-office work the same. Both are prohibited during a shutdown. Once notified of a shutdown, “Furloughed employees should take no more than three or four hours to provide necessary notices and contact information, secure their files, complete time and attendance records, and otherwise make preparations to preserve their work.” according a memorandum from the Office of Management and Budget.
But how do you keep workers used to checking their email frequently and keeping caught up whether in the office or out, from working during a furlough? Most agencies can’t simply shut off email or access to other information systems because some critical, exempted work relies on them. Right now, most agencies do not have plans to collect government issued mobile devices and laptops, but might do so at some point if the shutdown is prolonged, according to “Shutdown expert,” John Cooney. (Is anyone else concerned by the fact that there is such a thing as a “shutdown expert?”)
Certainly email withdrawal won’t be the biggest problem for furloughed workers who will likely be more concerned about paying the mortgage, but it does underscore the fact that what it means to work has changed. Locking up the building no longer means preventing work. I suspect most workers will adhere to the spirit of the law and avoid anything that is terribly productive, but to not check email at all? To wait to see what crisis might boil up until your undetermined date of return? That would be tough, and I suspect for some impossible.
There’s also the problem of how do you tell employees exactly when to come back to work if you can’t send them an email? Fortunately, the US Postal Service operates as an independent organization and will continue to function. Maybe the’ll have to snail mail it.