Workforce Wonk

By Alyah Khan

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Government shutdown: A no-win situation

As the countdown to a potential government shutdown continues, the already frustrated federal workforce stands to be profoundly affected.

The Obama administration’s two-year federal pay freeze stirred up lots of angry emotions among feds and Republicans’ recent proposals to cut or furlough federal employees makes many government employees feel as though they are being attacked.

Bearing all that in mind, it seems unwise for lawmakers to continue the battle over how to fund the government for the remainder of this fiscal year. However, there doesn’t seem to be any easy solution coming down the pipeline before the current spending measure expires March 4.

The House did pass a continuing resolution Feb. 19 to fund the government for fiscal 2011, but the bill has little to no chance of making it through the Senate. And while both House Republicans and Senate Democrats have said they will propose short-term spending measures next week, neither side appears willing to compromise.

So what does the budget debate mean for the federal workforce?

For starters, a possible government shutdown could lead to a large number of feds being furloughed.

During the first Clinton-era government shutdown, about 800,000 feds were furloughed. The second shutdown was less severe but still caused about 284,000 workers to sit idle and unpaid, according to the Congressional Research Service

These shutdowns in 1995 and 1996 lasted a total of 27 days, according to John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service.

Historically, workers who are furloughed have been paid retroactively, but that is not a requirement, Palguta said. “The ultimate cost – should there be a shutdown in March – will not really be known until after the fact,” he said.

The length of the shutdown, how many workers are affected, and whether employees will be paid for furlough days will all determine the true impact of a suspension of government services.

But in the current climate, a government shutdown stretching more than a couple of days is likely to hurt employee morale. Palguta – who was working in government at the time of the Clinton-era shutdowns – said “it’s a horrible feeling to have to leave the office.”

He added that the main takeaway from the mid-1990s shutdowns is that there are no winners.

“By and large, it doesn’t do anything for the effective operation of government,” he said. “The public ended up paying people not to work. It caused disruption and angst among members of the public and the federal workforce.”

Posted by Alyah Khan on Feb 24, 2011 at 12:20 PM


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