Shutdown Fears in the Federal Workforce

Many federal employees still feel uninformed about possible furloughs and are concerned about how they will manage without a paycheck.

At a town hall meeting hosted by Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., on Thursday night, government workers and local residents expressed anger and frustration over an impending shutdown. They called Congress' failure to reach a budget agreement "absurd" and "unsatisfactory" and said furloughs are unfair to employees who want to go to work.

Nearly 100,000 federal employees in the Washington area are likely to be furloughed, Moran said. He also warned that if an agreement is not reached soon, the shutdown could continue into May as lawmakers depart for a spring recess on April 18.

During the town hall, attendees questioned how a shutdown would impact high-three salaries, used to calculate annuity benefits, as well as pay and benefits during a furlough. A presidential management fellow at the Bureau of Land Management said younger employees who haven't had time to develop savings accounts are particularly worried about how to cover costs should a shutdown last for days or weeks.

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According to union leaders in attendance, food stamps and unemployment benefits could be available to some furloughed employees. In addition, the Federal Employee Education and Assistance Fund, which is supported by the government's Combined Federal Campaign, provides emergency loans to government workers.

"You need to start conserving your resources," Moran said. "This could be extended."

The last time the government shut down in 1995 and 1996, for 27 days at an overall cost of $1.4 billion, furloughed federal employees were paid retroactively for the time they were off the job.

"The main thing I need to let you know is that you should not take that for granted," Moran said, adding that there is "little sentiment" in support of reimbursing furloughed federal workers. He also announced plans to introduce legislation on Friday that would guarantee retroactive pay for nonessential employees after the shutdown ends, but he cautioned the proposal likely won't be well-received.

Tom Webb, a Social Security Administration employee and president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3615, said there is a lot of apprehension among workers, particularly those who live paycheck to paycheck. Agency officials have communicated very little with employees, saying only that more information will be available Friday afternoon, he said.

"Morale is pretty bad right now," said a Coast Guard worker. "People aren't prepared for this ... no one is explaining any of this stuff."

Some attendees declined to reveal their agencies because they were afraid to speak publicly. Others expressed frustration over the perception that federal employees are lazy. Several said they just want to be able to continue working.

A State Department employee who thought she would be deemed essential and therefore required to report to work during a furlough said her co-workers are disappointed that the public would allow the shutdown threat to get this far.

"I wanted to know that other people are upset," she said. "I feel better now."