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OPM issues instructions on furlough-related pay and benefits issues

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As agencies come back to life, there’s a lot of housekeeping to attend to. In guidance released this morning, the Office of Personnel Management tackles a topic of interest to any fed furloughed during the 16-day partial government shutdown: How agencies should handle retirement contributions, “use or lose” annual leave and other complications. Check it out!

Shutdown Watch-Day 16: Could agencies reopen soon?

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Good morning! For federal employees, it might be hard to imagine an upside to a wild day on Capitol Hill that began with House Republicans singing “Amazing Grace” and ended with warnings from Fitch credit rating agency that it was looking closely at downgrading the United States’ creditworthiness.

But yesterday’s chaos could also presage an end to the partial government shutdown that began Oct. 1. The reason is simple: Any deal to reopen agencies is tied to raising the nation’s debt ceiling and lawmakers could make real headway on the latter front today.

After the House GOP leadership was unable to corral enough votes to pass its own bill by last night, the action has shifted back to the Senate where lawmakers have resumed work on a bipartisan deal that would include a continuing resolution running until mid-January (anyone remember when Congress used to pass full-year appropriations bills?) and raise the debt ceiling until February.  The full Senate could vote as early as today on the package, according to The New York Times. Expectations are that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, will have to follow suit and allow a vote.

“It’s all over; we’ll take the Senate deal,” an anonymous House aide told National Review, a conservative news outlet. Under a best-case scenario, that probably means feds could be back on the job as early as Friday.

Of course, given the events of the last few days, FedLine has to caution that lawmakers could shred this script as well.

The heat is on, however, as the Obama administration continues to warn that the nation will exhaust its last dribs of borrowing authority by tomorrow. If that happens, the federal government will soon be unable to pay all of its bills, among which are salaries and other compensation for 2.1 million federal employees. What happens then is unclear; while officials with the Office of Management and Budget and Office of Personnel Management held a conference call with federal labor unions and other employee groups yesterday, they punted the question to the Treasury Department, participants said.

“I think we’re in uncharted territory,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., told reporters in a separate conference call when asked how federal employees could be affected by a debt ceiling breach.  “We still have to get the federal workforce back [to work] and paid.” Also unclear is whether all contractors will be fully paid, he added.

In other news, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell sees at least one possible silver lining to the shutdown: “The increased awareness of the American people to the importance of the work you do and the value that all Americans receive from their investment in you,” Jewell told Interior employees in a message posted online by the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.

Any major developments we’ve missed, particularly in regard to agency news? Let us know with an email to shutdownstories@federaltimes.com.


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GovLoop launches morale-builder for non-essential feds

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Let’s face it: Being designated a non-essential (non-excepted is the officially preferred, if seldom used phrasing) federal employee during a government shutdown can be a bummer, particularly since it means a no-pay furlough.

To buck up feds’ spirits, the online networking site GovLoop has started a “You Are Essential” campaign that hands out free stickers and suggests that participants mobilize their Facebook pages in support. As of late Monday, almost 500 people had signed up, GovLoop founder Steve Ressler said in an email. You can find more information on the campaign here.



Shutdown Watch-Day 15. It’s white-knuckle time.

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Good morning! Let’s start the day with a cheery observation often attributed to the 18th-century English writer Samuel Johnson: “Nothing concentrates a man’s mind more than the prospect of being hanged in the morning.”

Figuratively speaking, the same seems to be true of Congress. The specter of impending economic calamity, combined with rising public disapproval, (particularly for Republicans), over the partial government shutdown, appears to have prodded senators to close in on yet another stop-gap budget deal that could have just as easily been reached a month ago.

As reported by Defense News, a sister publication of Federal Times, Senate leaders could unveil a tentative agreement as early as this morning that would reopen agencies at current spending levels until Jan. 15, while raising the nation’s borrowing limit to last until February. On the budget front, the idea is to give lawmakers and the Obama administration three months to dicker over broader concerns, such as easing or canceling the next round of sequester-related cuts that will likely take effect in January. At this point, it’s unclear whether the package will include a provision ensuring back pay for hundreds of thousands of furloughed federal workers.

A Senate vote on the agreement could come Thursday. That’s also the day that the government will exhaust its borrowing authority, threatening a potentially ruinous debt default, according to the administration. And assuming the deal is approved by the Democratic-controlled Senate, it faces a rough ride in the GOP-run House, where some lawmakers have not given up on hopes of forcing the White House to delay implementation of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). The overarching question is whether House Speaker John  Boehner, R-Ohio, would be willing to pass the compromise package with Democratic votes if he can’t bring enough members of his own party along. So far, Boehner’s not saying.

A key off-stage player will be the stock market. If major market indices take a dive in the next day or two, that could ramp up pressure on lawmakers to give the agreement final approval sooner rather than later. (And even Tea Party loyalists have investment portfolios, after all.)

Any major developments we’ve missed, particularly in regard to agency news? Let us know with an email to shutdownstories@federaltimes.com.



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How has the shutdown affected you?

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Hi everyone:

As of tomorrow morning, much of the federal government will have been closed for two full weeks.  If you’re a federal employee, how has this affected you? Federal Times is working on an article about the shutdown’s impact on the federal workforce; if you’d like to share your story, please email Staff Writer Sean Reilly at sreilly@federaltimes.com and let me know how to reach you. Thanks very much!



Today’s holiday just another furlough day for many feds

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Officially, today (i.e., Oct. 14, marking Columbus Day) remains on the books as a paid federal holiday. But because of the partial government shutdown, only a limited number of federal employees are scheduled to be paid for it.

Even employees deemed “excepted” (or as many feds put it, “essential”) during the shutdown must take today as an unpaid furlough day unless required to report to work, according to Office of Personnel Management instructions (check out pp. 12 and 13). As OPM puts it in a helpful question-and-answer format:

“Q: Will an ‘excepted’ employee who does not work on a holiday that occurs during a shutdown furlough be paid for the holiday?
A: No. An ‘excepted’ employee who does not work on a holiday will be placed in a furloughstatus for the holiday and will not receive pay for a holiday that occurs during a shutdown furlough unless authorized by subsequent legislation.”
How many people are working today is unclear, although the number is presumably pretty small. An OPM spokesman referred the question to the Office of Management and Budget’s press office, which (assuming it’s open) did not immediately reply to an email.
As Federal Times has previously reported, two bills to assure back pay to furloughed federal employees have unanimously passed the House; both are awaiting Senate action.


Shutdown Watch-Day 14: Headed down to the wire (again)

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Good Morning! Today is a federal holiday, but that doesn’t mean much to hundreds of thousands of furloughed federal employees as the partial government shutdown enters its third week. According to a message from one agency leader, the Office of Personnel Management has said this is an unpaid furlough day both for non-excepted and excepted employees unless they are required to report to “perform excepted functions.”

And about ending that shutdown . . . Sunday produced lots of saber-rattling and zero tangible evidence that a deal is in sight, either on reopening the government or raising the $16.7 trillion debt ceiling, with just three days now remaining before the Obama administration says it will run out of emergency borrowing authority.

Nonetheless, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev,. sounded an upbeat note, saying that he had  a “productive conversation” with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “Our discussions were substantive, and we will continue those discussions,” Reid said on the Senate floor, according to the Congressional Record. “I am optimistic about the prospects for a positive conclusion to the issues before this country today.”

The stock market seems a bit dubious, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average and other major indices all initially down this morning.

But if this fight originated in Republicans’ insistence on defunding implementation of the Affordable Care Act, (aka Obamacare), the battlefield has now expanded to encompass Democrats’ demands to soften or eliminate this fiscal year’s looming sequester-related budget cuts. Absent any congressional action to rewrite the 2011 Budget Control Act, the next round of reductions is likely to hit in January. McConnell is open to including changes in a debt ceiling increase, as long as the end result doesn’t raise overall spending levels and doesn’t involve a tax increase, according to an aide.  But opening a new front in the conflict may make it that much harder to resolve, particularly with time growing short before a possible debt default.

Speaking on “Fox News Sunday” yesterday, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., warned that Democrats are “on the verge of being one tick too cute.” Just as the Republican-controlled House overreached in seeking to undo the health care law, Democrats are overreaching “as they see the House possibly in disarray,” Corker said.

The upshot (hold your breath): A final deal may involve a short-term continuing resolution to reopen the government and buy time for talks on a broader budget agreement. According to The Wall Street Journal , Reid sounded out McConnell on a CR that would run through mid-December at current spending levels, accompanied by an approximately six-month debt limit increase. In our deadline-driven political system, the expectation is that all sides will come together in time to stave off catastrophe (think August 2011). But assuming that the Senate can pass the usual stop-gap bill, the measure still has to get through the House, long-time budget watcher Stan Collender noted today in a Tweet. “No guarantee at all House GOP will follow even if [the Senate[ vote is 100-0,” Collender wrote.

In other news:

The Federal Housing Administration is calling on mortgage lenders to be sensitive to financial hardships facing federal employees and contractors subject to furloughs, layoffs or lost income stemming from the shutdown. That advisory comes as many, if not most, feds receive smaller than usual paychecks because of the shutdown.

The National Association of State Budget Officers (in case you thought the spending stalemate only affects feds) puts out a brief on what the shutdown means for state governments.

The American Federation of Government Employees warns that this week will be a “critical turning point” for many of its members as their paychecks run out.

Any major developments we’ve missed, particularly in regard to agency news? Let us know with an email to shutdownstories@federaltimes.com



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Federal judge: Tell Congress to go to h—

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No doubt many frustrated federal employees have thought it. Now a federal judge has said it: “It is time to tell Congress to go to hell.”

That’s what Richard Kopf, a senior district judge in Nebraska, wrote on his personal blog last week, adding that “it’s the right thing to do.”

It should quickly be said that Kopf, named to the bench by President George H.W. Bush in 1992 and now semi-retired, was speaking figuratively as to how the judiciary should react to the funding impasse that triggered the partial government shutdown Oct. 1.

As FedLine has previously noted, the courts have so far been able to maintain relatively normal operations because of fee income and prior-year appropriations. That reprieve will run out at the end of this week, forcing chief judges in every district and circuit to decide which employees are essential and will keep working and which will be furloughed as non-essential, according to a spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

Kopf’s advice: “Reject the premise of the question.” Considering how many employees the courts have already lost because of the sequester and other forces, he asked, “why shouldn’t every remaining employee of every federal district court (including [Federal Public Defender] employees) be declared “essential?”

You can read the remainder of his Oct. 7 post–reported earlier today by Politico–here.


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Shutdown Watch-Day 13. Optimism wanes.

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Good morning! It’s hard to believe that just two days have passed since Friday, when hopes were rising of  a compromise that would bring federal employees back to work and raise the nation’s borrowing limit in time to avoid a crippling default.

Now, talks have broken down between the Obama administration and House Republicans, while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has rejected a proposal by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, that included a six-month continuing resolution.

“There are two good things in it,” Reid told reporters yesterday. “Number one, it opens the government, number two, it extends the debt ceiling. Other than that there’s little agreement with us.”

Reid didn’t elaborate, but Collins’ plan would repealed a medical device tax that helps pay for the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) and keep the sequester in place, although agencies would have more flexibility to deal with reduced spending, according to a release on her web site.

At present, any hope for an agreement hinges on the outcome of talks between Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., two men not known for warm relations.  Just considering the procedural timetable needed to push a bill through the House and Senate, it’s hard to imagine a deal emerging in time to reopen the government this week.

How curdled is the mood on Capitol Hill? Politico has this bulletin from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., explaining why he might back an amendment by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., that would make members of Congress and their staffs pay full freight for their health insurance by cutting off the subsidy that the government typically chips in for federal employees. Critics fear that this step would lead many congressional staffers–unable or unwilling to bear thousands of dollars in extra expense–to look elsewhere for employment. No matter, Graham indicated.

“I am going to look at offering the Vitter language on anything that comes out  of the Senate,” Graham said. “If we’re going to screw up the whole  country, we might as well throw ourselves in the mix.”

Any major developments we’ve missed, particularly in regard to agency news? Let us know with an email to shutdownstories@federaltimes.com


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House members press for Senate action on back-pay bill

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Two Virginia lawmakers are seeking quick Senate action on legislation that would assure back pay to furloughed federal employees once the partial government shutdown ends. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., passed the House last Saturday 407-0, but has stalled in the Senate, where Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has voiced reservations about a fast-track vote.

In a Friday letter, Moran and Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., the bill’s lead Republican co-sponsor, urged Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to work with their “respective caucuses to overcome any objections to advance this important legislation.”


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