At any given time, tens of thousands of federal civil servants are out of the office on assignments. Some brief, some extended.
They may be auditing taxes or investigating a meat packing plant. Maybe counting wild horses in Wyoming or on a border-patrol inspection in Arizona or New Mexico. They could be living in a quonset hut in Antarctica. Possibly on long-term assignments in Bosnia, or the heart of Africa.
So what happens to these people if they get word from headquarters that they’ve been furloughed? Are they lost in space? Do they come home, and if so when and how?
Although furloughed employees are supposed to return to base immediately, what if they are furloughed only one day per week? That appears to be the plan for some agencies, including Defense. Do they come home for one day, then return to their out-of-town assignment until the next F-day. Do they shelter-in-place living off their own dime until it runs its course?
Weird situations prompt weird questions. And answers!
Sequestration and the furloughs that would follow are not a sure thing. Politicians could work out a compromise, or as the president has proposed, moving the March deadline to a later date. Meaning we will go through this drill again in August or whenever.
By now, most federal agencies that have furlough plans have drawn them up. Some, but not all, have even notified employees as to what will happen, if anything happens.
Defense, the largest federal civilian agency, says if it happens, it will likely furlough nonemergency (nonessential) workers one day per week through September, the end of the fiscal year. That would be a maximum of 22 days, although few people would see a furlough, if there is one, lasting anywhere near that long.
Furloughs would save the government money, at least in payroll. But legally implementing one requires lots of prep time, detailing with sometimes mind-numbing issues. They can range from the petty to the very serious. Navy, for example, has canceled plans to send a second aircraft carrier to patrol the touchy Persian gulf region. That sends a message to both Congress and Iran.
An example of the detailed issues furloughs present is in rules dealing with workers who are on out-of-office assignments on F-day. If they are declared essential, they stay and work. And get paid. If they are non-essential, they would be subject to furlough rules — stop working and come home ASAP. But those rules were expanded for extended furloughs (like the 1995-96 shutdowns). That could get tricky in a one-day-per-week furlough climate.
According to government furlough guidance, employees working out of town (or the country) or on detail could — unless declared to be emergency workers — be told to come home? “Employees who are notified to return home should do so as soon as practicable. When an employee returns promptly, the travel expenses that the employee incurs in the return are properly-incurred obligations of the agency (as part of the agency’s orderly-shutdown activities), and the agency will reimburse these travel costs after appropriations are enacted and are available for that purpose.”
But if the worker “doesn’t elect to return promptly” and runs up bills — like for food and lodging — “those additional travel expenses are not obligations of the agency, and will not be reimbursed … .”
During and after the furloughs, if they happen, politicians and portions of the media will go after silly “bureaucrats.” They will take the heat if things go wrong or if something serious, even deadly, happens. But it’s important to remember that it’s politicians — of both parties — who brought us to the brink, forcing otherwise busy and productive (one hopes) career feds to write regulations worthy of The Onion, covering their own job funerals.
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