January 30, 2019: Reflections

Someone very dear to me pointed out that many of my posts were too detached, and read like reporting. This individual had a point. I am a Federal employee and as such, I aimed to appear nonpartisan and to protect individuals’ privacy (including my own). That said, within those confines, I can share more of how the extended furlough personally affected me.

For me, I was blessed with enough savings as to not feel the financial stress that people living paycheck to paycheck felt. That said, as the shutdown dragged on, I felt the pinch. I hated making withdrawals from my savings account. I cut back on expenses. I held off on making charitable contributions. And even now, with my make-up pay deposited in my account, I wonder what will happen after February 15th. I realize that other people had it much worse than me. The following image from the Washington Post is one that is emblematic of what is clinically called the “partial government shutdown”– middle class professionals standing in a food pantry line.

A second feeling that I had was of complete helplessness. Yes, I could protest, and yes, I could write my Congressman. However, I did not get a sense that it was effective. I felt that I was preaching to the choir. I felt like a pawn in a political power play. It was very disorienting. In retrospect, perhaps images such as the the silent furloughed workers holding empty plates below (downloaded off of the web) may have influenced policy-makers. Certainly, the actions of the air traffic controllers who called in sick on January 26th had an impact.

A third feeling that I had was feeling in limbo. It was impossible to plan much of anything because who knew how long this furlough would last. We could be out another month or two, or called back to work the next day. As a planner, I found this maddening.

Like many others, I had trouble sleeping. In my case, typically, I would fall asleep but wake up 5 hours later, unable to fall back asleep. My rhythm was disturbed. I later heard of furloughed workers who made sure that they went to bed and woke up at their regular time; perhaps that might have served me well.

I did find constructive things to do. Several years worth of clutter was tossed, recycled, or given to Goodwill. I cooked a lot, using new recipes and ingredients. I spent time with family and friends. I read a few books. And I started this blog. When life hands you lemons, you make lemonade.

Finally, I felt that, even as a pawn, I was a bit player in a very interesting historical moment. However, I fervently hope that I don’t have to do a repeat performance in 2 1/2 weeks.

January 21, 2019: Second Furlough Notice

My employer sent me an email directing me to a website where I could download my second furlough notice (since the first furlough was only for 30 days). I am attached an edited version of it. I don’t know if those from other Government Agencies received similar notices or if they varied by Department.

In the absence of a signed Budget or Continuing Resolution to provide funding to Federal government operations for Fiscal Year 2019, no further financial obligations may be incurred, except performance of activities excepted from furlough. Excepted activities include those for law enforcement, and that protect health and safety; those financed from available funds such as trust funds or carry-over funds; those that protect
life and property, or those that are necessary to begin shutdown of other activities. Employees performing one of the excepted activities defined by law constitute a competitive level for shutdown purposes. Each staff office, mission area and agency is responsible for maintaining a plan that specifies excepted activities and required procedures for the orderly shutdown of their organization, and only employees identified for the orderly suspension of activities will be retained.

On January 16, 2019, the President signed into law the “Government Employee Fair Treatment Act of 2019.” The Act provides that Federal employees who were furloughed or required to work during a lapse in appropriations beginning on or after December 22, 2018, will be compensated for the period of the lapse on the earliest date possible after the lapse ends, regardless of scheduled pay dates.

Because you are not engaged in one of the excepted functions, you will continue being in a furlough status effective January 21, 2019. This furlough, e.g., non-pay or nonwork status, is not expected to exceed 30 additional days. During the furlough, you are not permitted to perform your Government duties as an unpaid volunteer, and you must remain away from your workplace unless and until recalled to duty.

The furlough is a result of the continued sudden emergency requiring curtailment of your agency’s activities. Therefore, the customary 30-calendar day advance notice period and opportunity to answer under the provisions of Title 5, Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Part 752.404(d)(2); and for Senior Executive Service employees under 5 CFR 359.806(a) are suspended.

Use of Government Equipment

Employees in furlough status are prohibited from using any government-issued equipment including computers and telephones. The same prohibition applies to use of any government system, including remotely accessing government e-mail or other automated systems. An exception is provided for access to personal information or documents on the Be Prepared and Employee Personal Page. Please be advised that a non-excepted employee’s use of government-issued equipment during the furlough may subject the employee to penalties that could include disciplinary action, fines and/or incarceration.

Available Information Sources

Employees are expected to use available resources (i.e. personal e-mail accounts, television, phone, radio, newspaper) to stay informed on the status of (agency) funding and subsequent termination of the shutdown. The Office of Operations Be Prepared website at (website) provides employee resources during the shutdown. The web site is being updated regularly. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) website
(www.opm.gov) is also another resource. It is recommended that you check these resources often.

Outside Employment

During the furlough, employees may engage in certain outside employment. However, all employees must ensure that such outside employment does not pose a conflict of interest with their official (Federal Government job) duties, and are required to comply with the ethics regulations governing
engaging in outside employment or activities (5 CFR Parts.2635 and 8301). During the furlough, the requirement for employees to seek advance approval of any outside employment or activity is waived. However, it is important to note that the ethics rules still apply to all employees during a furlough period, so any outside activity or employment must not present a
conflict of interest with your position and duties. Please review the Ethics Q&A and other Ethics resources that have been posted on Be Prepared.

Employee Assistance Program

Please be reminded that it is (Agency)’s policy to offer the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) services to all employees who may be experiencing personal matters or that may be impacting their job performance, conduct, or attendance. In advising you of this counseling service it is not implied that you have such a problem. The EAP provides confidential counseling services for USDA employees at no charge to the employee. EAP services are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Information on contacting EAP services for your agency may be found at the Be Prepared web site.

No personal information regarding your contact with EAP can be obtained by anyone without your written consent, and your participation is not noted in your electronic Official Personnel Folder.

Unemployment Compensation

While on furlough, Federal employees may become eligible for unemployment benefits under the Unemployment Compensation for Federal Employees (UCFE) program. UCFE is paid by the states under the same terms and conditions as regular state UC. Please contact the state of
your last official duty station to file an UCFE claim. To qualify for benefits, you must have earned sufficient wages during the prior 12 – 18 months, as determined under the state UC law. The state will advise you of whether or not you are eligible for benefits. The Be Prepared web site includes additional resources regarding Unemployment Compensation.

Appeal Rights

Depending upon your type of appointment you may be eligible to appeal this action to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). Employees who have completed a probationary or trial period or one year of continuous employment in the competitive service, under other than a temporary appointment, may appeal this action to the MSPB. Employees in the excepted service who have veterans’ preference may appeal to MSPB if they have completed one year of current continuous service in the same or similar positions as the one they now hold. Employees in the excepted service who do not have veterans’ preference and who. are not serving a probationary or trial period under an initial appointment pending conversion to the competitive service may appeal to MSPB if they have completed two years of current continuous service in the same or
similar positions in an Executive agency under other than a temporary appointment limited to two years or less. If you have the right of appeal to MSPB and wish to appeal the furlough action, you must file the appeal within 30-calendar days after the effective date of your furlough. MSPB appeal forms, regulations and the address of the MSPB Regional Office having jurisdiction are attached and may also be found at http://www.mspb.gov. Career SES appointees (except reemployed annuitants) who believe requirements of 5 CFR 359, subpart H, or the agency’s procedures have not been correctly applied may also appeal to MSPB. MSPB appeal forms, regulations and the address of the MSPB Regional Office having jurisdiction are attached and may also be found at http://www.mspb.gov.

If you are a member of a bargaining unit and are covered by a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that provides for grieving an adverse action, you may be eligible to grieve this action under the negotiated grievance procedure or you may appeal to MSPB, but not both. To obtain information on filing a grievance under the negotiated grievance procedure, please contact your union representative or refer to the CBA.

Point of Contact for Questions

If you have questions not addressed in this notice, please contact your servicing Human Resources Office or e-mail (agencyemail).gov.

We sincerely regret any hardship this action has caused and recognize the impact any furlough has on employees. The Secretary is closely monitoring the budget discussions and is committed to responding to budgetary constraints in a manner that will provide minimal disruption to employees while striving to adequately serve the American people. We are hopeful that the legislation or the appropriations necessary to continue (Agency)’s activities will be enacted soon.

January 19, 2019: Marching

I attended the women’s march today, carrying my sign that says “Stop the Shutdown”. A few people came up to me and asked if I was affected and of course, I said that I was a furloughed Federal worker. A number of other marchers shared their shutdown stories.

After the march, as my friend and I were walking to the latest subway stop, we saw the popup restaurant that Jose Andres created to serve Federal workers affected by the shutdown. We had already had lunch, but we got coffees (it was blustery and clammy outside) and they gave us a bag with dinner for us. It is amazing how much support there was among the marchers for ending the shutdown.

I’m going to include some photos of some of the interesting signs pertaining to the shutdown.

A few signs were addressed to the Senate Majority Leader.
Feeding Furloughed Feds
Real food. You could get a bag with food to go.

January 17, 2019: Food Assistance

I received a very ironic email from my local food bank asking for donations (some text has been altered to protect privacy). Needless to say, I’m not contributing right now.

The text of the solicitation is as follows:

We are currently in the longest government shutdown in the history of our country. With no end in sight, many local (residents) are affected:

  • Federal workers who are currently furloughed and not being paid.
  • Contracted workers, such as janitorial staff and food service workers, who are out of work and will never see these lost wages.
  • Employees from local businesses who are losing valuable work hours as federal employees look to cut expenses.

(Food Bank) currently serves 2,300 families on a weekly basis, and we need your help in order to keep up with the rising demand for our services. Please consider making a donation to (Food Bank) to support all those in need at this time.

January 15, 2019: Uncertainty

Now that the DC judge has ruled against the federal employees’ unions lawsuits (see my previous post), hope of having this shutdown end anytime soon has faded for me. I really am concerned that this shutdown will last for a number of weeks. While I have the resources to ride out an extended furlough, I know many people don’t. But its not just about me. What does it say about the country that huge slices of work that the government does is being left undone. What does it say that over 400,000 people are working, often at hard, taxing jobs, with an unknown pay date?

I know that I’ve felt very discombobulated, without my normal routine and my normal tasks. I know that when I am able to return to work, there will be tons of emails and a lot of catch up to do. I know that I’m just a pawn in a larger political game and I feel powerless. Even calling my Representative and Senators is not really something that I feel gives me agency; for me, contacting them is like preaching to the choir. My Congressman and two Senators want the shutdown to end as much as anyone.

There was a period in the 1990s when I felt in limbo; when I was trying to get pregnant. It took nearly two years. In hindsight, that doesn’t seem that long, but at the time, it was v e r y d r a w n o u t. The big part was the uncertainty. Would I conceive this month? Next month? Next year? End up adopting? Resign myself to a childless life?

I had a lot of panic about that situation; I was in my late 30s and having a child was something I felt very passionate about. Towards the end of that period, though, I had an epiphany — this period was simply one act in my life; it would come to a close, something new would happen, and it was going to be all right. Shortly after that, I did end up conceiving and becoming a mother to a beautiful healthy child.

There are some lessons here, but I also recognize that the situation is very different. The commonality — feeling in limbo and having uncertainty. The differences — this isn’t about me, it’s about millions of people (if you add those living in households with the 800,000 affected Federal employees), plus all of the contractors and small businesses that are losing income, yes, it is millions). And its about the future of our national government, and thus, about our country. I don’t have the confidence this time that everything will be all right.

Comments welcome.

January 11: Free Food for Furloughed Feds

A number of restaurants are providing free food for furloughed Federal workers with ID. One of them is the restaurant empire owned by Jose Andres, which includes these restaurants. Any of the restaurants listed at the link will provide a free sandwich between 2:00 and 5:00 pm. The sandwich is a gourmet ham, but if you don’t eat pork, the restaurant will substitute cheese. Mine was delicious. The weird thing though was that you would look around and see other people eating the same sandwich and you knew they were in the same boat.

ham sandwich, courtesy of Jose Andres

January 11, 2019 — Some Background on US Government Shutdowns

Many people, particularly those reading from abroad, may be wondering why the United States Government has these “shutdowns”. This post will provide some background. A good description can also be found on Wikipedia.

The United States Congress appropriates funds for operating the United States Government. Like any other legislation, these appropriations must be passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate and then signed by the United States President. If the President vetoes them, both houses muster a two-thirds majority vote to override the veto.

The Antideficiency Act prevents the Government from entering into a contract that is not “fully funded”. If there is a lapse of appropriations, a Government Agency must suspend all operations that are not required to protect the safety of human life or the protection of property. Those employees performing such duties (such as TSA agents) are considered essential and must continue to work. Other employees, such as myself, are furloughed, which means that we are essentially locked out from our work. Once funds are restored, everyone goes back to work and essential employees receive back pay. For furloughed employees, Congress must vote (and the President sign) legislation to provide pay for the days that employees were furloughed.

There are 12 appropriations bills that must be passed every year. Since the Federal Fiscal Year begins on October 1, these bills must be passed and signed by September 30. Sometimes, all or many of these bills are combined into an “omnibus” appropriations bill. If bills are not enacted, Congress may enact a temporary “continuing resolution” which funds the Government for a set period of time, allowing Congress to pass a full-year appropriation.

For 2019, Congress passed some appropriations, such as the Department of Defense, Social Security, and Medicare. However, many other parts of Government were not covered under an appropriations bill and were funded under a Continuing Resolution that expired at midnight, Saturday, December 22. The President refuses to sign any appropriations bill (even a Continuing Resolution) that does not contain $5.7 billion for a border wall separating the United States and Mexico. The House of Representatives will not pass an appropriation that funds the border wall. The Senate will not vote on any appropriation that will not be signed by the President. All three parties are at an impasse, waiting to see who will blink first. And so here we are, on day 20 of this shutdown.

January 10, 2019: Two Stories

As I’ve mentioned before, I am extremely fortunate in that I have sufficient savings to ride out the shutdown should it continue for a while. I also have no debts other than my mortgage and no dependent children or pets. However, two colleagues of mine have problematical situations. They are not dire, life-and-death crises, but I’m concerned about them and hope that this shutdown ends so that these two individuals can move on.

The first colleague has three young children and a six-figure student debt. This colleague is married and the spouse is also employed, in the nonprofit sector, so there is at least one income still coming in. However, having one’s family income cut in half is no picnic. I suspect that a student loan payment can be delayed, but interest on the debt may accumulate. A second problem facing my colleague is what to do about daycare. Paying expensive day care costs seems foolish if one parent is out of work. However, countervailing that is the risk that one might lose the child’s slot in the day care. Also, my colleague does not know when we’ll all be called to report back to work. So the day care costs need to be paid.

The second colleague, at full retirement age, put in paperwork to retire on January 2 under the old Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS). This link explains how the shutdown is affecting those who planned to retire but were in furlough status. It appears people in that situation will receive all benefits retroactively. The question is how long it will take for the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to process everything and does this employee have enough in savings to ride it out until payments start to come in?

These two examples are real people. Highly educated people whose worlds are completely turned upside down by this very long and unnecessary shutdown.

January 10, 2019: Making my voice heard

I joined hundreds of other members of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the Services Employees International Union (SEIU), the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE) and other groups for a rally near the White House. Besides Federal employees, other speakers included Senators Ben Cardin (MD), Chris Van Hollen (MD), Mark Warner (VA), Mazie Hirono (HI), and Bernie Sanders (VT).

All we are asking for is the chance for those of us who are furloughed to be allowed to return to work and those who are essential to get paid for the work that they are doing. I’m including a couple of links. The first is an article from the Washington Post. The second is a video from the NTEU’s Facebook page. Finally, I’ll include some photos that I took.

NTEU President Anthony Reardon
Senator Bernie Sanders
Marching by the White House