How Feds Are Coping After the Longest Shutdown in History

There are few words that can adequately describe the rollercoaster of emotions and collective experiences that feds have felt over the past few months. For the 800,000 employees who were forced to brace for and bear through the turmoil caused by the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, many are still working to restore a sense of normalcy while wading through a 35-day backlog of work.

To say that morale took a hit would be an understatement. “Most feds have expressed that they don’t want to be re-traumatized with a second furlough [or] shutdown, so we are taking advantage of the opening of the government to get our back pay plus one full check before the 15th [of February] to ride out the storm,” a Homeland Security Department (DHS) employee told GovLoop shortly after returning to work at the end of January. Some feds applied for other jobs while they were furloughed and others are contemplating whether they have the wherewithal to withstand the financial hardships and uncertainties posed by any future shutdowns.

It seems like déjà vu as feds prepare for what could be another shutdown if lawmakers don’t pass a spending bill by Feb. 15 at midnight. As recent as the evening of Feb. 11, “three people familiar with Congress’ tentative border security deal tell The Associated Press that the accord would provide $1.375 billion to build 55 miles of new border barriers,” the news outlet reported. “That’s well below the $5.7 billion President Donald Trump demanded to build over 200 miles of wall along the Mexican boundary.”

But as feds have learned, tentative deals can take on a life of their own and may or may not result in a final spending bill. Just one day before the news of this recent tentative deal, Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney told NBC News’ Chuck Todd that he “absolutely cannot” rule out another government shutdown, pointing to the fact that Trump could not in good faith sign a spending bill that did not include money for a wall between the U.S-Mexico border.

This type of uncertainty makes it challenging for feds to fully focus on carrying out mission requirements because it’s unclear how long they will be able to do so. Even if Congress and the White House reach a deal on border security funding, government employees are left to navigate a post-shutdown work environment where project deadlines have been missed, grant awards have stalled, emails have gone unchecked, hiring dates have been shifted and much more.

“It is my concern, over a period of years, there have been a series of events which are affecting the attitudes of those workers we depend on to keep our country operating,” said Darryl Perkinson, a federal retiree and former GovLoop featured contributor. Those sentiments are being echoed by current feds who say they identify with their agency’s mission but can’t bear the emotional and financial impacts of any future shutdowns.

The level of disruption caused by the shutdown is tough to capture in a single story. GovLoop has learned that some federal HR professionals are meeting with senior leaders to discuss the state of recruitment and staffing efforts as they brace for yet another potential shutdown. One government employee we spoke with said higherups want to create a new list of excepted and non-excepted employees, or those who would be sent home without pay and those who would be forced to work without pay during a shutdown. During the most recent shutdown, thousands of furloughed employees from the State Department, IRS and other agencies were called back to work without pay.

About 25 percent of federal agencies, including the Homeland Security, Agriculture, Justice and Transportation departments were impacted by the 35-day shutdown. But other government entities saw their staff sizes shrink and doors close as funding dried up.

The main priority over the past few weeks has been ensuring employees get paid, many of whom desperately need to catch up on bills and repay loans through their banks or Thrift Savings Plan. Government payroll centers have been working to issue back pay, which some employees have yet to receive in full since the shutdown ended Jan. 25. Payroll centers had hoped to pay employees by Jan. 31, but there are multiple instances where employees have not been properly paid yet.

“Human Resources offices are encouraged to aid employees in reviewing their earnings and leave statement (E&L) to ensure employees understand their salary payments and deductions,” the Agriculture Department’s National Finance Center (NFC) wrote in a Feb. 8 customer notification letter. NFC provides payroll services to more than 650,000 federal employees

Hiring, Recruiting Take a Hit

To provide clarity on the hiring front post-shutdown, the Office of Personnel Management released guidance this month around handling promotions and other HR-related activities that were halted or hindered by the shutdown.

Agencies were given 22 business days to extend job vacancy announcements that closed during the shutdown. There are exceptions for specific cases, and agencies were told to reach out to [email protected] to confirm what extension period is appropriate. For job candidates on the other end of this process, communications with agencies went dark Dec. 22. That meant tentative job offers were not made and requests for interviews were not sent in a timely manner.

On the online discussion forum Reddit, one of the site’s sub-groups that focuses on the federal government featured a thread about hiring during the shutdown. One user had interviewed with the U.S. Forest Service and wasn’t sure whether to follow up with HR and get clarity around next steps. “I have been applying for federal jobs off and on for about 16 years and this is [the] first interview I have ever gotten,” the user wrote.

Another chimed in, “My start date was supposed to be in January and I got called yesterday that it might be pushed back due to the shutdown. Thankfully they didn’t rescind it. My agency is with DHS.”

HR professionals are also processing any authorized career ladder promotions that weren’t granted because of the shutdown. “The HR office is required to process the action retroactively to honor the authorized effective date,” according to the OPM guidance. All of these efforts to restore normal operations are in addition to tasks that HR and other support functions were doing before the shutdown.

There have been bipartisan calls from lawmakers to pass legislation that would end future shutdowns, and many outside of Congress agree.

“The recently released worldwide intelligence assessment provides a chilling list of dangers faced by the U.S. from foreign adversaries, but it did not cover a threat of our own making—the burning down of our own house with the recent partial government shutdown and the bleak prospect that it could happen all over again,” said Max Stier, President and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service

Stier added, “Ultimately, the best thing Congress can do for our country is pass spending bills on time. The status quo is unacceptable.”

Photo Credit: rawpixel on Unsplash

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Sherin Shibu

Nicole, you did a fantastic job humanizing the shutdown and exploring the impact on worker morale, among other factors. This was written before the Consolidated Appropriations Act was signed into law, securing funding for this fiscal year and preventing another shutdown, so you capture the uncertainty that many federal workers may have felt during the interim period.

Avatar photo Nicole Blake Johnson

Thanks, Sherin! I really wanted to make the story personal. So many people are grappling with the aftermath, but hats off to everyone for doing the best they can to serve the public.