Federal Employees, On Dealing with the Shutdown

One month ago, on December 11, Donald Trump telling Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi that he will be "proud" to take responsibility and blame for a shutdown. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In response to these past few items — “Let Them Eat Vacation Days,” “3 Simple Facts About the Shutdown,” and “Yet Another Reason to End the Shutdown” — furloughed federal workers write in about their experiences.

Vacation days aren’t the bonanza that they may seem. Last night the head of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, Kevin Hassett, said in apparent seriousness that furloughed federal workers were “in a sense better off,” since they were in effect on “vacation” now and would eventually get back pay.

One veteran federal worker, who is also a military veteran, disagrees:

It's worth noting that even by Mr. Hassett's logic there's going to be workers that are considerably worse off, because an awful lot of federal workers carry "use-or-lose" vacation (I always did).

One of our friends did, in fact, have a lot of vacation scheduled for January that she was forced to take.  Now she's furloughed instead -- and if the furlough ends in the next month, has to take that vacation right away.  Which means she'll probably just go to work "on vacation" to clear out a backlog -- she's not getting "free" vacation days, she's getting screwed out of them.  

Yes, it’s complicated. Another worker to similar effect:

Because the leave year ended January 5, and there is a maximum number of annual leave hours that can be carried forward, some of those furloughed employees were probably using "use or lose" leave.  I am unsure whether the furlough would justify restoration of that leave for all those employees.

(My particular agency is permitting restoration, but that appears to be a agency decision, rather than a broadly-applicable OPM or OMB decision.)

So these employees might not have both leave and pay for furloughed time; they might have to forfeit the leave they were scheduled to take, and to suffer weeks without pay and without knowing whether they will ever get paid, before possibly being paid.

In addition, furlough is a non-pay status, and lengthy periods of non-pay status reduces a number of benefits.  For example, accrual of annual leave stops after 80 hours in non-pay status.  See this paper.

In my agency, people scheduled to retire during the furlough period are at risk of losing their final (time off) performance award, and having no option for restoration.

I've personally lost some leave hours of a yet another type, which also have no restoration provision.

Our only mistake.” A federal employee on the lesson that this episode is teaching:

In "3 Simple Facts About the Shutdown", you conclude by saying: “But it’s hard to imagine a decent case for knowingly inflicting damage on hundreds of thousands of public servants, who have nothing whatsoever to do with this issue and whose only mistake was to have chosen a vulnerable line of work.”

Showing my bias [as a federal employee], I would suggest that the public servants’ only mistake was to commit themselves to public service, swearing an oath to bear true faith and allegiance the Constitution of the United States.

Had we chosen to put party before the Constitution, we could be welcomed (and currently paid) in the legislative branch or some other partisan position; had we chosen to put mammon before the Constituion, we could be paid in the private sector.  It was our choice to put the Constitution and the country first that made us pawns.

But, perhaps you are right in saying that "a vulnerable line of work" is working to "establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty".

Twilight zone.  The experience of past shutdowns:

As a retired Foreign Service officer, I deeply appreciate your attention to the current shutdown.  

I served through three of the previous ones, in 1995-1996 and in 2013.  I was the only person in my office required to come in during the two earlier shutdowns, in order to resolve a war involving a country with which I was working.  

It was a deeply stressful time; after all, one can't pay today's mortgage with next month's money.  And it was also a very lonely one; the darkened halls at the State Department were so empty that as I walked down them, the motion sensors would light each block of hallway ahead of me, like something out of the "Twilight Zone."  

The memory of that experience is ugly, as will be the memories of federal employees suffering similarly now.  They and the country they serve deserve better.