Workforce

OPM warns that back pay could be wonky

By Mark Van Scyoc Royalty-free stock photo ID: 285175268 

With federal agencies, for now, open again, the Trump administration is directing agencies to get employees paid for time lost as fast as possible and to be flexible with employees as they come back to work.

Office of Personnel Management acting Director Margaret Weichert circulated a memo to agency human resources officers about how to handle employees in the immediate aftermath of the shutdown, as well as when feds should expect to be paid and how much for time missed.

"Due to the length of the lapse, we anticipate that some employees may face extenuating circumstances or personal challenges that impact their ability to return to work on their next workday immediately following the end of the lapse," wrote Weichert.

She added that managers should take "individual challenges" into consideration to the extent possible and "provide appropriate flexibility" to feds who are facing "legitimate difficulties that may delay their return to work."

As for backpay, Weichert said OPM is "committed to ensuring that retroactive pay is provided as soon as possible." For a few smaller agencies, that could be as soon as Jan. 28. But most will come either Jan. 30 and 31.

Furloughed employees are to be compensated at their "standard rate of pay" for hours they would have normally worked if not for the shutdown, per Weichert. Excepted employees are also owed their standard rate, plus whatever overtime hours they accumulated.

Leave accrual postponed due to being in a "nonpay" status during the shutdown is also to be reinstated.

Weichert also warned that as part of the effort to get feds their pay as soon as possible, payroll may make mistakes or "simplifying assumptions" and assured HR officials that payroll providers will work with agencies to correct any mistakes "as soon as practicable."

Weichert also directed anyone whose retirement application may have been delayed due to the shutdown to submit it immediately so OPM "will be able to begin annuity payments as soon as possible."

Economic fallout

In an early assessment of the shutdown's economic impact, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the 35 days will cost about $3 billion that won't be recovered.

"The shutdown dampened economic activity mainly because of the loss of furloughed federal workers' contribution to GDP, the delay in federal spending on goods and services, and the reduction in aggregate demand (which thereby dampened private-sector activity)," the CBO stated. "Underlying those effects on the overall economy are much more significant effects on individual businesses and workers."

CBO noted its analysis does not account for "other, more indirect negative effects of the shutdown," such as federal permitting, statistical agencies' inability to publish data and the inability to access federal services.

And while federal compensation in total will not be affected by the shutdown, the timing -- two full missed paychecks -- will push about $9 billion into February and March.

"Families across the nation are still trying to recover from a month of missing paychecks and overdue bills, but the president is already threatening a second shutdown if he doesn't get his way," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.

Catch-up

For feds returning to work, the three weeks before the Feb. 15 continuing resolution expires may be filled with playing catch-up on work missed before having to prepare for another potential lapse.

Steve Reaves, a safety officer with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the backlog of emails and missed calls alone could take a week to fully address. Agencies' contingency plans outline how to handle a lapse in appropriations, but they are generally not intended to govern a month-plus long shutdown -- one in which employees miss two entire paychecks. So if progress on a funding deal isn't made quickly, employees could have to turn right around and prepare for another potential lapse.

Given its role in recovering from and preparing for disasters, in the meantime, FEMA employees "are going to get up and running for two weeks like no shutdown is pending" Feb. 15, said Reaves. "But you know it is on all their minds."

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a former FCW staff writer.

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