”It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.”
That 1930s quote from a Danish politician is more true today than ever. With the last government shutdown little more than a week behind us, there is already talk of another one. The political divisions that resulted in the last shutdown have not gone away, and the issues are still important to both parties. On Tuesday night Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said in an interview that there is “no chance” there will be an omnibus appropriations deal passed by the Feb. 8 deadline. That means he sees little likelihood of anything other than another continuing resolution. So should federal workers be worried that there will be another shutdown? And if there is another one, what do feds need to know?
Let’s start with the first question. Unless you are a compulsive worrier, getting stressed out over what the politicians are doing isn’t going to do any good. If you want to do something constructive, contact your representative and senators and let them know what you think about the potential shutdown and the underlying issues. Whether your politics run to the left, right or center, those folks are supposed to represent you and they do pay attention to what their constituents tell them. The fact that this is an election year may make them more likely to care what you think and getting your views heard can bring some satisfaction.
In the event there is another shutdown, what do feds need to know and do?
Some of the greatest concerns about shutdowns are from those folks who live paycheck-to-paycheck. For them, a long shutdown could be disastrous. Anything that disrupts pay for someone whose finances are on the edge is a problem. Those folks should be thinking now about what they would do if pay is delayed. That may mean using credit cards to deal with short term cash needs (but not leaving those balances on the card when pay is restored), borrowing from family, or talking with creditors and asking to make late payments. It is always better to ask or notify in advance than to simply not pay the bill.
In a prolonged shutdown, some people might want to look for a temporary job. Keep in mind that a shutdown does not change or negate any restrictions on outside employment that might apply to you. If you cannot do outside work when the government is open, you cannot do it when the government is shut down.
I know a lot of federal workers are worried that their work will not get done during a shutdown. They care about the work and the consequences of it not being done. They also know their agencies will want them to get everything caught up soon after a shutdown ends. Many of them will want to keep working during a shutdown. They rationalize it by saying that they know they will eventually get paid, so there is no harm in continuing to work from home. I admire their integrity and their dedication to their work, but I encourage them to stop working during a shutdown. The law says the government cannot accept their services, and the fact is that there should be consequences for Congress not getting its work done.
Speaking of getting paid, there was one bit of good news from the last shutdown.
The bill that ended the shutdown also included a provision could be interpreted as authorizing back pay for that shutdown and any other shutdown that occurs in this fiscal year. The language is in a section covering grantees, but it is unclear if it refers only to those folks or to federal workers as well. Even if the language does not cover a future shutdown, the number of members of Congress expressing support for back pay for feds is so large that no one should worry that they will not get back pay.
As we saw in the last shutdown, there is no way to predict how long a shutdown might last. That means taking advantage of the shutdown to go on vacation is risky, unless you know you have leave available and that taking it will be approved. Given the amount of work that does not get done during a shutdown, it would generally be reasonable for a supervisor to deny annual leave due to workload when the shutdown ends. Employees are better off staying nearby and being ready to return to work the following day.
I received some questions during the last shutdown from folks who were concerned about their insurance and whether it would remain in effect during the shutdown. The answer is yes, it remains in effect. This is one of the many questions that OPM answers in its excellent Guidance for Shutdown Furloughs. Anyone who is worried about a potential shutdown should check out that guidance. It is thorough and has in-depth answers to many questions.
So should feds worry about another shutdown? I think the answer is no. Our elected representatives did not exactly cover themselves with glory in the last one and neither party emerged as a clear and convincing “winner” of the shutdown (if such a thing exists). If we combine political self-interest with a voting population that increasingly says “A plague on both your houses!” my prediction is that they will find some way to agree on another continuing resolution. Even if they do not, the likelihood of a long shutdown is remote. Because the most serious effects on federal workers occur only in a prolonged shutdown, my advice is to not worry about it.
Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF and founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.