Two federal employee unions want their members’ voices to be heard in the face of a potential government shutdown April 9.
The National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) and the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE) are asking their members to hold a national “Federal Employee Call-In Day” on April 5 when workers will call their members of Congress and ask them to avoid a government shutdown at all costs.
“In the event of a shutdown there would be some very serious impacts on the public and one of the most imminent ones would be the delay in processing of the tax refunds,” said Colleen Kelley, NTEU’s president, in a Monday conference call with reporters.
“A shutdown would deprive taxpayers of the assistance they need from IRS employees to meet their tax obligations this filing season,” she said. “You hear a lot when there is talk of shutdowns about closing of national parks and museums and those are important, but there are very serious consequences that are too often not talked about. We think of some very serious ones like cut back in capacity of the Food and Drug Administration to inspect food, drugs and medical devices. It’s possible we could see impacts on border security and transportation since it’s unclear which employees will be considered essential.”
Bill Dougan, president of NFFE, said federal employees are just the tip of the impact iceberg.
“With 85 percent of the federal workforce outside of the Washington, D.C. area, communities across the country would feel the pinch of a government shutdown,” he said. “A recent report by Goldman Sachs found that the government provides about $8 billion per week in spending, and cutting off government spending would reduce the real GDP growth by 0.8 percent at annualized rate in the quarter it occurred. A longer shutdown would be more devastating to small communities that depend on the local Veterans Affairs hospital or the Army base or the Forest Service office as a major employer.”
NTEU and NFFE are providing members with phone numbers to all members of Congress as well as a script of what to say. The script is optional, Kelley said.
“The message that we want to send is that Congress must do its job for federal employees to do their jobs,” she said. “It’s as simple as that. I think phone calls from thousands of federal employees can change the debate on this issue. Federal employees understand better than anybody the detrimental impact that a government shutdown and unrealistic budget cuts are going to have on the critical services that the American public expects from them and on the fragile economic recovery.”
NTEU and NFFE also have invited other federal unions to join the national call-in day.
Unions taking proactive steps
The other large federal employee union, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) started running radio ads last week with 100 stations in 24 cities trying to explain what a shutdown would mean to the citizens. AFGE also issued a 16-page shutdown guide trying to answer questions for federal employees.
NTEU and NFFE say employees should make phone calls or send emails on their own time and not from federal computers or smartphone devices.
NTEU’s legislative and political director Maureen Gilman said the Hatch Act doesn’t come into play during this effort. The Hatch Act only deals with electoral politics.
“This is about an issue that impacts them and they have a right to do,” Kelley said. “The message is they’re calling their members of Congress to come to a quick and reasonable compromise that avoids a government shutdown and provides adequate funding to the agencies so they can carry on their missions of serving the American public. It’s a very clear message about funding and their agency. It’s focused at every elected member of Congress who will be voting on these issues.”
Kelley and Dougan couldn’t estimate the likelihood of a shutdown actually occurring.
Is a deal close?
Lawmakers seemed close to an agreement last week to cut $33 billion from the rest of the fiscal 2011 budget. But no agreement has been reached yet and under the current House rules, any bill must be available to members at least 72 hours before debate and a vote happens. This rule would require the House to have a bill in place by Tuesday night at the latest.
“We’ve reached out over the last few weeks to our members to get as many home email addresses as possible because we are their only source of information for them,” Kelley said. “We cannot answer some of the questions, but we’ve been trying to set up a communications system in event of a shutdown so employees have someone to contact rather than no one at agency.”
Kelley added NTEU will provide a text message service to members to let them know if a shutdown occurs.
Dougan said NFFE’s general counsel drafted guidance that local offices can use to request to bargain on certain furlough or shutdown-related topics.
Employees are in limbo
Kelley and Dougan expressed frustration about the lack of information the White House is providing federal employees about what happens if a shutdown occurs.
Kelley and Dougan say the last they’ve heard from the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management about the possibility of a shutdown was at the March 16 meeting of the National Council on Federal Labor Management. At that meeting, OMB deputy director for management Jeff Zients said he didn’t expect a shutdown to occur.
“Agencies say their plans are not finalized yet and agencies are spending a lot of time on them, but they’ve yet to release them to employees,” Kelley said. “It’s frustrating that there is no release of that information to employees. The word on the street is that plans must be approved by OMB, and agencies can’t release them until OMB says so. But there are some who say that if a shutdown happens on Friday night employees will have to come in on Monday to conduct an orderly shutdown. That seems ridiculous.”
Ken Baer, OMB director of communications, tells Federal News Radio, “The President has been clear that he does not want a shutdown, and that is why the Administration has been working hard to find common ground and has moved to meet the Republicans more than halfway to get a funding bill passed. But we are aware of the calendar, and to be prudent and prepare for the chance that Congress may not pass a funding bill in time, OMB today encouraged agency heads to begin sharing their contingency plans with senior managers throughout their organization to ensure that they have their feedback and input. As the week progresses, we will continue to take necessary steps to prepare for the possibility that Congress is unable to come to agreement and a lapse in government funding ensues.”
Dougan said the lack of communication from the White House is leaving employees in limbo because they don’t know if they are considered exempt employees-they continue working if a shutdown happens-or non-exempt employees-they would be furloughed.
Dougan estimates that because no other appropriations bills have been passed about 800,000 employees could be affected, similar to what happened in 1995. But he said that it could even be higher since in 1995 Congress approved the Defense Department’s budget and those employees didn’t face furloughs.
Kelley said OMB estimated that the 1996 partial shutdown cost the government about $1.4 billion.