Second month of furlough brings changes for workforce

Federal agencies shuttered due to the shutdown sent out a second round of furlough notices in recent days, while the Office of Personnel Management updated guidance regarding leave accrual, retirement benefits and health care enrollment.

employee data (kentoh/Shutterstock.com)

Federal agencies shuttered due to the shutdown sent out a second round of furlough notices in recent days, while the Office of Personnel Management updated guidance regarding leave accrual, retirement benefits and health care enrollment.

By law, furlough notices only cover 30 day periods. OPM guidance states agencies should issue additional furlough or "adverse action" notices beyond that point. The notices come as some agencies are planning to recall employees to handle operations. The Department of State is calling back diplomats to work this week. The IRS will also return about 46,000 employees to work, unpaid, and prepare for filing season. Others agencies are similarly bringing employees off furlough to work.

Federal employees who are furloughed can apply for unemployment benefits. Those working without pay cannot -- a decision that was recently affirmed by the Department of Labor in response to a letter from Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser.  

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) criticized the "seemingly ad hoc way" the Trump administration is deciding who should and should not work during the shutdown.

Warner, who has questioned the process agencies use to define "excepted" employee status, sent letters to the heads of the Departments of Interior, State, Treasury, Agriculture, Transportation and the IRS about their determinations.

"Rather than finding ways to minimize the impact of the current government shutdown, and straining legal bounds to do so, it is my strong belief that the best way to fix the current situation is to simply end the shutdown," he wrote.

Excepted employees are required to work. Employees who flout their excepted status and do not report to work will be considered "absent without leave," according to OPM. "The agency may use its discretion, based on the facts and circumstances of the employee's situation, to apply appropriate consequences based on the AWOL status."

Effects on leave, benefits and health care enrollment

In a separate, new set of frequently asked questions, OPM also clarified that furloughed employees will not accrue sick leave once they've been in a nonpay status for 80 hours -- generally, two full work weeks.

That means that furloughed employees will no longer accrue annual and sick leave, unless Congress authorizes retroactive accrual. Excepted employees still accrue new leave, but they can't use it until a funding deal is reached.

Another issue presented by an extended shutdown is employee retirement. A shutdown extending six months could affect feds' calculation for retirement benefits, which is based on an the average of an employee's three highest paid years -- known as "high 3" in government HR lingo.

"Generally, a period of nonpay status will have no effect on an employee's retirement-creditable service or high-3 average pay unless the nonpay status is for more than 6 months during the calendar year," OPM stated.

In the FAQ, the personnel agency also clarified its guidance for health care enrollment. Usually in a shutdown, changes to enrollment plans do not take place until funding is restored, but  OPM has made an exception "due to the birth or addition of a child."

"There is no requirement to be in pay status in order for an enrollment or change in enrollment due to birth or addition of a child to become effective," it stated.

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