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As the partial government shutdown drags on past 30 days, agencies are scrambling to find the answers to questions they’ve never had to address before.
The Office of Personnel Management, for example, is preparing more guidance for excepted employees on how they can use leave during the government shutdown.
The Government Employee Fair Treatment Act, which the President signed into law last week, clarifies that excepted employees working during the shutdown can take leave during the lapse in the appropriations. But the new law doesn’t specify how agencies should denote employee time-off.
Jan. 18 OPM guidance addresses excepted employees who fail to show up for work. They should be considered “absent without leave,” or AWOL. Employees who have a “legitimate impediment” should work with their supervisors to be put on “situational furlough status” for approved days off. In the past, “situational furlough status” meant employees risked receiving back pay for the days they spent off and technically furloughed.
But since all federal employees are now guaranteed back pay whenever the government shutdown ends, excepted workers are wondering how their agencies will handle will handle their requests for leave.
Federal News Network has received dozens of emails and calls from excepted employees who are working without pay. They want to know whether their agencies will retroactively charge them for leave taken during the government shutdown — whenever the lapse in appropriations ends. And they’ve voiced concerns that their furloughed colleagues will eventually be paid for time spent not working with no consequences to their personal leave banks.
According to a fact sheet from the Agriculture Department dated Jan. 18, OPM is “developing additional guidance on the use of leave during the lapse in appropriation for excepted employees.” OPM didn’t respond in time to requests for information about this forthcoming guidance.
Second furlough notices go out
Agencies meanwhile are handling another unprecedented situation. For the first time ever, departments and agencies are sending out second shutdown furlough notices to employees.
The first furlough notices, which employees received shortly after the government shutdown first began on Dec. 22, last for 30 days and expired Jan. 21. OPM requires agencies to send out second shutdown furlough notices to non-excepted employees, simply notifying them that the lapse in appropriations has continued.
“You will continue being in a furlough status effective Jan. 21, 2019,” a Jan. 18 furlough notice to employees at the Agriculture Department reads. “This furlough, e.g., non-pay or non-work status , is not expected to exceed 30 additional days. During the furlough, you are not permitted to perform your government duties as an unpaid volunteer, and you must remain away from your workplace unless and until recalled to duty.”
Some agencies used these second shutdown furlough notices to clarify the answers to common lapse-related questions.
Ethics questions during the government shutdown
USDA, for example, reiterated employees can find outside employment during the government shutdown, as long as it doesn’t conflict with their official duties at the department.
USDA is waiving the usual requirement that employees get agency approval for taking on outside employment during this furlough, Mary Pletcher Rice, the department’s chief human capital officer, said in the furlough notice. If USDA employees do take on additional outside work, they should make sure they follow government ethics guidelines and check that their new employer isn’t considered a prohibited agency source.
The Coast Guard also recently weighed in on another unprecedented scenario caused by the government shutdown: Dozens of people describing themselves as federal employees impacted by the shutdown are turning to crowdsourcing sites like “GoFundMe” to solicit donations.
Absent specific guidance from the Office of Government Ethics on this topic, the service warns its members and their family from using their status as a “Coast Guard member” or “federal employment affiliation” to solicit gifts through these sites.
“But nothing precludes raising money personally or through websites so long as the effort is wholly in a personal capacity, no prohibited sources are solicited and the activity does not appear to be endorsed by the Coast Guard or an individual Coast Guard member,” the service wrote in a series of FAQs on its website. “Be careful, because funds raised by individuals may count as personal income for tax purposes.”
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