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Are Federal Agencies Expecting a Long Shutdown?

When will the federal government reopen? It’s a question that government employees and the general public are asking with more urgency as the latest partial shutdown drags on with no clear resolution.

The current shutdown began Dec. 22, 2018, so speculation about its ending is natural with two major milestones nearing.

First, Friday, Jan. 11, 2019 marks the first time that many federal workers will miss paychecks since the shutdown began. After that, Saturday, Jan. 12 will then make this freeze the longest in history. The 1995 shutdown lasted 21 days.

Unfortunately, at least one agency appears to be steadying its workforce for a prolonged shutdown. In recent days, the Homeland Security Department (DHS) has begun circulating internal and external documents warning agency employees to rethink their finances.

“As you are aware, the lapse in appropriations that began on December 22, 2018 is still in place,” a Wednesday, Jan. 9 DHS message obtained by GovLoop reads. “I know many of you are concerned by the length of this funding hiatus and the outlook for its resolution.”

“The President and Congress are working toward a resolution that will include the necessary funding for stronger measures to secure our borders, and we remain hopeful an agreement can be reached soon,” it adds.

The DHS message is attributed to Claire M. Grady, the agency’s Senior Official Performing the Duties of the organization’s Deputy Secretary. The note then updates DHS employees on how the shutdown is impacting their pay.

“Employees who are working during the lapse because they are performing excepted functions, for example, performing activities necessary for the protection of property or safety of life, and who are paid through a DHS appropriation that has lapsed, may not receive a paycheck on time for this pay period,” it says, referencing the Dec. 23, 2018 to Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019 pay period.

“We continue to work with the National Finance Center (DHS’s payroll provider) to allow for expeditious payment as soon as DHS has an appropriation,” the communication adds. “Once an appropriations bill for DHS is passed, employees will be paid for all hours worked.”

Grady’s note next addresses furloughed DHS employees, or those who are temporarily absent from the agency without pay due to special circumstances.

“Furloughed employees will not receive a paycheck for this pay period,” it states. “We remain hopeful – and have consistently seen in previous shutdowns – that Congress authorizes back pay for furloughed employees.”

Finally, the message speaks to DHS employees who are getting paid from the agency’s funding that hasn’t lapsed due to the shutdown.

“If you are working and paid from accounts that have not lapsed, such as USCIS [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] fee-funded employees, those in FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] paid by the Disaster Relief Fund, the Federal Protective Service which is paid from receipts from other federal agencies, and limited other organizations around the Department, your payroll for this pay period will be processed on its normal schedule by the National Finance Center,” it says. “This payroll will be processed to banks beginning on January 12, 2019 through the official pay date of January 17, 2019.”

“If you are working during the lapse and are uncertain as to whether the account that pays your salary has lapsed, please contact your supervisor to get clarification,” the message adds.

A separate Wednesday, Jan. 9 DHS email obtained by GovLoop, meanwhile, advises the agency’s employees on their transit benefit subsidies during the shutdown.

“Expected and furloughed employees who receive a transit subsidy benefit may want to suspend their recurring order for February so that they are not personally charged for their benefit,” it says.

“To suspend their recurring order for February, employees should contact their commuting provider – e.g. BART in San Francisco, Metro in DC, etc., – as soon as possible for provider-specific instructions,” the note adds. “Once the Department receives an appropriation, transit benefits will again be funded and employees can re-start their recurring order.”

The message about transit was sent on behalf of Gwen Yandall, DHS’s Executive Director, Human Capital Policy and Programs Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer.

The guidance that DHS and other federal agencies are providing to their employees is under intense media scrutiny as the shutdown grinds towards its fourth week.

The Washington Post reported on Wednesday, Jan. 9, for example, that the Coast Guard removed a tip sheet titled “Managing your finances during a furlough” after the newspaper asked about it.

The guidance does not “reflect the Coast Guard’s current efforts to support our workforce during this lapse in appropriations,” said Lt. Cmdr. Scott McBride, a service spokesman. “As such, this guidance has been removed.”

McBride said that the Coast Guard has an 8,500-person civilian workforce, with about 6,400 of those people on indefinite furlough and 2,100 working without pay after being identified as essential workers.

The Coast Guard receives funding from DHS, distinguishing it from other military services which are funded by the Defense Department (DoD) instead. DoD remains open during this shutdown, while parts of DHS are closed.

Roughly 41,000 active-duty Coast Guardsmen are currently working without pay, with their next check due on Jan. 15.

Approximately 420,000 federal workers overall are presently working on the assumption of retroactive pay, while about 350,000 more are furloughed.

The Coast Guard’s guidance suggested having garage sales, walking dogs, tutoring students and working as a “mystery shopper” as some options for employees affected by the shutdown.

About 25 percent of the federal government is shuttered as Republicans and Democrats argue over its funding appropriations.

At issue is President Trump’s long-promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump is demanding that fellow Republicans in Congress to secure more than $5 billion for the structure. Democratic leaders in Congress, however, have refused any spending on the barrier.

Though predicting the shutdown’s outcome is difficult, DHS’s recent guidance suggests that the agency is starting to view the situation as long-term.

With both camps equally entrenched as the shutdown heads beyond 20 days and counting, there’s no telling where the standoff will head next.

You can find all of GovLoop’s shutdown coverage here.

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