How bad would a shutdown be for DHS?

Commentary by Jeff Neal
Founder of
& Senior Vice President, ICF International

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog,, and was republished here with permission from the author.

The Secretary of Homeland Security says he would have to furlough 30,000 workers if nothing is done to resolve the DHS budget impasse. The Associated Press ran a story today called, Fact Check: What Are the Risks if Homeland Security Shuts Down?

Reading the AP story, which says “the reality is that a department shutdown would have a very limited impact on national security,” you might conclude that no budget and a DHS “shutdown” are no big deal. The AP says, “mostly administrative staff, including support workers at headquarters and personnel who do training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers, employees involved in research and development, and those responsible for operating and maintaining the E-Verify system that allows businesses to check the immigration status of new hires” would be the employees affected during the shutdown. That means the Border Patrol will keep working. So will the Secret Service, US Citizenship and Immigration Services, and TSA.

So — are they right? Yes and no.

Courtesy of Jeff Neal

Yes, because the description of who will and will not stay home is accurate. No, because there is a lot more to it than just who stays home and who goes to work.

Let’s start with the people who go to work. They will not get paid for the time they work after the appropriations lapse until the budget is resolved. If you have plenty of money, that is no problem.

What about those people who do not have a lot of money? Should a Transportation Security Officer with a family and a $40K income lend money to the government in the form of free labor? Who will pay his or her bills in the interim? And is it OK for the government to demand employees work with no guarantee of when they will get paid?

A lot of people say we should run government like a business. No business would do that to its workforce.

Why should you care about “admin” folks?

And what about the people who stay home? It is just a bunch of administrative folks, so who cares? I care, and so should a lot more people.

Let’s look at the two examples of “administrative” jobs the AP cited and see what happens when they shut down.

First, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC). FLETC trains Law Enforcement Officers (LEOs) in most federal agencies. Their training programs are highly regarded and form the backbone of the training many LEOs receive. FLETC has limited capacity, so its classes are generally full or close to it. When they lose classes, they cannot just make them up. Their capacity does not magically expand after a shutdown. That means the ability of the government to train new LEOs is harmed.

The longer the shutdown, the more potential damage it does. For those who are in the middle of training and who are sent home, their agencies pay for travel in both directions that would not have been necessary. The training is interrupted and the gap may make it less effective.

Another example is E-Verify, the system that allows businesses to determine the eligibility of their employees to work in the United States.

During a shutdown, employers cannot:

  • Enroll in E-Verify
  • Verify employment eligibility
  • View or take action on any case
  • Add, delete or edit company information
  • Reset passwords
  • Terminate an account
  • Run reports

All E-Verify customer support services shut down, so:

  • Telephone and e-mail support are not available
  • Employees cannot resolve errors with their status
  • E-Verify webinars and training will stop
  • E-Verify Self Check will not be available

If you are a private sector employer, you still have to comply with the requirements, but if you need a new account for a startup business, you will not be able to get it.

If you need training, you will not be able to get it.

If you need information to deal with a termination caused by the employee not being eligible for employment in the US, you will not be able to get it.

These are just two examples. There are many more.

DHS will not be able to award most contracts. The contracting folks will mostly be stuck at home. DHS will not be able to train most of its employees. It will suspend most grant operations, putting dollars that state and local governments and non-government organizations rely on at risk. It will disrupt IT systems, add time and cost to countless projects and operations, and generally make it difficult to do work. If it continues too long, the lack of support functions will seriously impede the department’s ability to carry out the “exempt” functions that continue even during a shutdown. For example, most HR people will go home. That means no job announcements, no referral lists, no new employees processed on board, and more.

In addition to the direct impact on federal workers, a DHS shutdown will also affect contractor employees. DHS is likely to tell many companies to send their employees home because DHS cannot continue to pay them — either because the offices where they work are closed, or because they are funded with FY 2015 money. Those employees may not be made whole, because many small businesses cannot afford to pay employees when they are not getting paid by the government.

So, it is not as simple as some folks would have you believe. Shutting down any part of the government is messy and expensive, and all of the implications may not be clear until it happens again and lasts a while.

The cost of the last shutdown was estimated at $24 billion. Just in salary and benefits alone, the cost of sending 30,000 DHS employees home to do nothing and then paying them when the come back is more than $12 million a day. That does not count the cost of the disruptions to programs and the effect it will have on the already tenuous morale in the department.

No matter how you look at it, during and after a shutdown, the government spends more and gets less. Shouldn’t we be striving to spend less and get more?

Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF International and founder of the blog, Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.


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