The current short-term budget expires Dec. 16 midnight, sparking talk of a possible government shutdown if Congress fails to reach a budget deal in time.
Below are the answers to your frequently asked furlough questions. The FAQ has been updated from a previous version published prior to the April near-shutdown.
Have a question? Email Federal News Radio at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From OPM’s Guidance and Information on Furlough
When would a potential shutdown begin?
The current funding measure expires on Dec. 16 at midnight. If Congress does not reach a budget agreement, a shutdown could occur then.
Who can be furloughed?
Any federal employee considered a “non-excepted employee” is subject to furlough during a shutdown.
“Excepted employees” refers to employees who are excepted from a furlough by law because they are (1) performing emergency work involving the safety of human life or the protection of property, (2) involved in the orderly suspension of agency operations, or (3) performing other functions exempted from the furlough.
Essential activities include:
A partial shutdown would not affect federal workers or operations at the following departments and agencies:
Funding for those agencies was approved last month in a separate spending bill, known as a “minibus.”
Will I be paid if I have to work during a shutdown?
According to a 1995 memo from the Office of Management and Budget, “Employees who are closing down operations or who perform excepted activities must report for duty as directed. During an appropriations lapse, they are still in pay status, but are working for delayed pay; they are not rendering free services, and are required to work.”
Will I receive back pay?
It’s not guaranteed. Congress would have to pass legislation granting federal employees the pay they missed while they were furloughed. This is what has happened in the past.
Can I volunteer to work unpaid during a furlough?
No. Unless otherwise authorized by law, an agency may not accept the voluntary services of an individual.
How will employees be notified whether they have been designated to be handling “excepted” or “non-excepted” functions?
Each agency will communicate with its employees regarding the method and timing of notification of whether they have been designated as an excepted or non-excepted employee.
Are all employees who qualify as “emergency employees” for the purpose of weather emergencies considered to be “excepted employees” for the purpose of a shutdown furlough?
Not necessarily. “Emergency employees” are those employees who must report for work in emergency situations-e.g., severe weather conditions, air pollution, power failures, interruption of public transportation, and other situations in which significant numbers of employees are prevented from reporting for work or which require agencies to close all or part of their activities. Emergency employees are not automatically deemed excepted employees for purposes of shutdown furloughs. Each agency must determine which employees are excepted employees.
Am I entitled to unemployment compensation while on furlough?
D.C.-area unemployment resources:
In Maryland, you qualify for unemployment from the first day of a shutdown, and could get a maximum of $430 a week.
In Virginia and D.C.
In Virginia the top benefit is $378.
Federal workers in West Virginia also would qualify.
If Congress does approve back pay, you’d have to pay back the unemployment money you received.
Will the National Weather Service be affected? What if major storms blow through? Will we get warnings?
A: The National Weather Service is governed by the Commerce Department. According to its shutdown contingency plan earlier this year, NWS employees who provide weather, water and air quality forecasts and warnings are excepted employees and will remain on the job.
D.C. Public Schools will remain open in the event of a shutdown. Does that include bus drivers?
A: Yes. From the DCPS website: “All schools and school employees will continue without disruption, including extracurricular and after school programming.”
If the Smithsonian museums close during a shutdown, does that include private, non-profit schools housed within them, such as the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center?
A: Yes. Schools housed within the Smithsonian museums would also be closed.
Will an employee continue to be covered under the Federal Employee Health Benefits (FEHB) program during a shutdown furlough if the agency is unable to make its premium payments on time?
Yes, the employee’s FEHB coverage will continue even if an agency does not make the premium payments on time.
What effect will a furlough have on other benefits that are paid for through payroll deductions?
The effect of a furlough on benefits that are paid for through payroll deductions varies. For additional information, see OPM’s fact sheet on the “Effect of Extended Leave Without Pay (or Other Nonpay Status) on Federal Benefits and programs at http://www.opm.gov/oca/leave/HTML/LWOP_eff.asp.
What functions will be impacted?
In part, the IRS will process electronic returns with a refund but will not process paper returns. Government websites would not be updated. FHA will not process new loans, SBA will not process new loans, National Parks will be closed.
How are active-duty military personnel affected by a shutdown?
DoD has released a shutdown draft plan, as reported by Military.com, stating, “All military personnel will continue in normal duty status regardless of their affiliation with exempt or non-exempt activities. Military personnel will serve without pay until such time as Congress makes appropriated funds available to compensate them for this period of service.”
If they need a loan, servicemembers can turn to branch-specific financial relief resources:
DoD employees who are NOT furloughed will receive retroactive pay, according to a memo to DoD employees from Deputy Secretary of Defense William J. Lynn.
DoD employees are being told to show up for work on their next scheduled duty day “to receive further instructions.” All DoD employees will find out from their supervisors by April 8 whether they are excepted employees or not, the memo says.
What happens if I am on travel status at the time of the shutdown?
“That depends,” said a 1995 memo from the Office of Management and Budget, the last time there was a partial government shutdown.
The memo states, “Persons on official travel who are performing excepted functions, or who are supported by funds not affected by a lapse, continue on duty. Non-excepted employees are placed on furlough, but, since many obligations for travel costs are incurred before the funding lapse, they are usually not recalled to their duty station.”
What happens to my Thrift Savings Plan loan repayments if I am furloughed? Will I default on my TSP loan?
TSP loans are repaid by payroll withholding. If a person misses two loan payments, nothing happens. Most federal employees are paid biweekly, which means nothing will happen if you cannot make your TSP loan repayments for 28 days. If it is longer, the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, which oversees your TSP, will notify participants by mail that they need to mail in a personal check for the “cure” amount to get their loan back on track.
Also, check out answer on obtaining a TSP loan in non-pay status
Will federal retirement payments be affected by a government shutdown?
This is the response from Dave Snell of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees (NARFE):
“In all probability the answer is no, retirement payments will not be affected by a government shutdown. Individuals who are now receiving monthly benefit checks from OPM or SSA should expect their payments to arrive as they normally do. However, we have nothing official from OPM or SSA on this.”
When a furlough occurs during the three years of service prior to retirement, what effect will time in a furlough status have on my high-3 average?
Generally there will be no effect on the high-3 average unless the furlough causes the employee to be in a nonpay status for more than six months during the calendar year.
If I am on leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) during the furlough, does the leave count towards the 12-week entitlement to FMLA leave?
An employee who is on approved for leave without pay (LWOP) under the FMLA on days that coincide with the period of furlough will continue to be charged LWOP. However, an employee who was scheduled during the furlough to take paid leave under the FMLA (i.e., an employee chooses to substitute annual leave or sick leave, as appropriate, for unpaid leave under the FMLA) must be placed on furlough instead. Since the paid leave was canceled, the period of absence may not be used to reduce the 12-week entitlement to FMLA leave.
An employee may NOT obtain a loan from their TSP account while in a nonpay status. However, because shutdowns are “rare occurrences,” TSP participants can still take out a loan during a “short-term break” in their pay status, according to a March 4 TSP fact sheet.
Employees who already have TSP loans when put in nonpay status can suspend the loan payments. According to the TSP website, “Upon return to pay status, your payroll-deducted loan payments must resume. Your loan will be reamortized automatically when your agency or service notifies the TSP that you have returned to pay status.”
Loans are not in default until the participant has missed more than two and a half payments. If you miss a loan payment as a result of the furlough, you have the option to make direct payments via the TSP website, according to the fact sheet.
If employees request paid leave – i.e., annual, sick, court, military leave – after receiving a furlough notice, can the requests be denied for those days that coincide with the dates of furlough? If an agency has already approved requests for these categories of paid leave before issuance of the proposed furlough notice, can the approval be rescinded and the employees furloughed on the days that coincide with the dates of furlough?
The answer to both questions is yes. In a shutdown, all paid leave during a furlough is canceled because the necessity to furlough supersedes leave rights. The Antideficiency Act (31 U.S.C. 1341 et seq.) does not allow authorization of any expenditure or obligation before an appropriation is made, unless authorized by law. Paid leave creates a debt to the government that is not authorized by the Act. Therefore, agencies are instructed that during a lapse in appropriations, all paid leave during a furlough must be canceled and employees must be either (1) at work performing excepted activities or (2) furloughed.
Are contractors located on site also required to not report to work? Or are they allowed to continue their tasks, albeit, without government oversight or monitoring?
A bit complicated. According to Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president at the Professional Services Council, contractors should not “volunteer” their services to an agency during a shutdown if they want to be paid for those services. If, for example, an agency were to suggest to a contractor that they continue working during a shutdown and “we’ll figure out how to pay you later,” the contractor is at risk of not being able to recover compensation for those services. Agencies may not displace the services of furloughed federal workers by using “volunteer” contractors.
Contractors should also keep in mind that they may not be able to access their work sites if there are no federal employees present to open the building. These are generalities, and details will vary by agency and contract. Chvotkin says the best rule of thumb is to discuss these issues with the appropriate agency contracting officer if a shutdown appears to be imminent.
Does the agency have to bargain with the unions before issuing a furlough?
The decision to furlough employees is a management right protected from collective bargaining. But an agency must bargain over the impact and implementation of its decision and over appropriate arrangements for employees adversely affected by the furlough, unless the matter of furloughs is already “covered by” the agreement.
What happens to my health benefits if I am furloughed?
For health benefits, the government contribution continues while employees are in a nonpay status. The government also is responsible for advancing from salary the employee share as well. The employee can choose between paying the agency directly on a current basis or having the premiums accumulate and be withheld from his or her pay upon returning to duty.
Enrollment continues for no more than 365 days in a nonpay status. The nonpay status may be continuous or broken by periods of less than four consecutive months in a pay status.
What happens to my life insurance if I am furloughed?
Coverage continues for 12 consecutive months in a nonpay status without cost to the employees. The nonpay status may be continuous or it may be broken by a return to duty for periods of less than four consecutive months.
Will I receive advance written notice of a furlough?
Not necessarily. While an employee must ultimately receive a written notice about a furlough, it is not required that a notice be given before the furlough starts. OPM does say prior written notice is “preferable,” but when it is not possible, then a reasonable notice – such a phone call or verbal communications – is allowed.
Can I take another job while furloughed?
Even while on furlough, you are still a government employee and must still abide by outside employment rules. According to the code of ethics, “An employee shall not engage in outside employment or any other outside activity that conflicts with his official duties.”
Are Presidential appointees subject to a furlough?
Appointees are NOT subject to furlough. The salary of a Presidential appointee is an obligation incurred by the year, without consideration of hours of duty required. If a Presidential appointee, however, chooses to be in a nonpay status, he may return part of his salary to his employing agency, provided that the agency has authority to accept gifts, or to the Treasury.
There is an exception – Former career Senior Executive Service appointees who took appointments at level V of the Executive Schedule or higher and elected to retain SES leave benefits under 5 U.S.C. 3392(c), are subject to furlough at the discretion of the agency.
If I am on a detail or assigned outside my agency, am I subject to a furlough?
Employees on a reimbursable detail from the agency would not be subject to furlough due to lack of funds if full reimbursement continued. If reimbursement were reduced or eliminated, the employee would be subject to furlough. Agencies may prorate the required furlough time for employees being paid by the outside organization during only part of the furlough period. Federal employees assigned to non-federal organizations who are on leave without pay from their federal positions may continue working.
Follow all of Federal News Radio’s shutdown coverage on our Shutdown page.
(Copyright 2011 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)
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