Shutdown anxiety strikes feds who fear ‘non-essential’ label

The head of a major federal employees union said Tuesday that her members are “anxious” about the possibility of an impending government shutdown, and unclear whether they will be considered “essential” or “non-essential” workers.

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), told reporters that the labels of “essential” and “non-essential” workers — used to describe which employees will and will not go home in the event of a government shutdown — will likely anger federal employees. 

“That is causing a lot of consternation. Even the terms — ‘essential,’ ‘non-essential’ — that mean different things to different people. Some people are highly offended that they are considered non-essential,” Kelley said. “No matter what words you use, you still have to put a definition around it.”

Kelley said she has had discussions with administration officials, whom she declined to name, regarding how best to define government workers. She said she has not come up with better labels for agency personnel in the event of a shutdown.

“I have not come up with two words that will not offend somebody. People are talking about ‘exempt,’ ‘non-exempt.’ That raises a whole different set of issues,” Kelley said. 

NTEU has 150,000 members spread across 30 different federal agencies, with most concentrated in financial regulators like the IRS and the Securities and Exchange Commission. 

The federal government will run out of funds this Friday if Congress does not approve new funding. House Republicans passed a new two-week funding bill Tuesday, and Senate Democrats have said they will take up the legislation.

Even if both chambers do sign off on a two-week funding bill, Kelley doesn’t believe that will lessen the chances for a government shutdown later on, due to GOP campaign promises of huge budget cuts this year.

“I don’t think the odds are any different on March 4 than they are on March 18,” Kelley said. 

NTEU opposes a federal government shutdown since its members would likely see their paychecks delayed or lost. It is also worried about taxpayers being denied government services, with national parks and Social Security Administration and IRS offices all shutting if the government runs out of funds. Other federal employee unions also oppose a shutdown. 

“Agencies operating on skeleton crews can’t deliver the services that the American public expects and deserves. Shutting down the government means shutting down services, plain and simple,” John Gage, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said in a statement to The Hill. 

“The bigger concern is the services. They want to work,” Kelley said about federal workers. 

Workers have heard little on what to do from their agency bosses in the event of a government shutdown, according to Kelley. 

“The communications to the employees has been almost zero,” Kelley said, leading to questions about how they will get paid.

“For many federal employees, March 7 is a payday. They want to know if the government gets shut down on March 4, do they get paid on March 7?” Kelley said. “Someone needs to tell them that their paycheck will be in their bank account on Monday, March 7.” 

Kelley said she is preparing her members for a government shutdown. The union is collecting its members’ home e-mail addresses so they can communicate with them if they are away from work. NTEU is also trying to answer questions about unemployment benefits and finding another job outside of the federal government during a possible shutdown period. 

“I’m telling them what I’m comfortable with. I’m not going to substitute NTEU’s judgment for something the agency should be telling them,” Kelley said. 

The union is lobbying hard to keep federal agencies’ budget levels safe from cuts. 

NTEU supports President Obama’s fiscal 2012 $13.2 billion budget proposal for the IRS. In turn, it is opposing the House GOP plan to reduce the agency’s budget to fiscal 2008 levels, saying it could mean 7,000 to 8,000 jobs lost at the IRS.