As federal employees await back pay fixes, another government shutdown looms

As the threat of another lapse looms large next Friday, some federal employees impacted by the 35-day partial government shutdown are still waiting for all — or part — of their back pay.

Federal payroll providers had said most employees impacted by the government shutdown would receive back pay by Jan. 31, though the number of payments would ultimately differ depending on the organization that processes their paychecks.

But as payroll providers rushed to get checks out the door as soon as possible, some employees are finding mistakes or missing deductions from their paychecks.

Some at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for example, hadn’t received all or part of their paychecks earlier this week.

“The agency’s highest priority is to ensure that all employees receive their missing paychecks as quickly as possible,” a FEMA spokeswoman said when asked about missing back payments. “A majority of employees received back-pay [last] week. However, given the magnitude of impacted FEMA personnel during the recent lapse, the agency encountered some challenges while processing such a large volume of pay on an expedited timeline. All affected employees have been notified individually and our human capital office is working to ensure they are compensated as quickly as possible.”

Many of the 1,400 furloughed employees at the National Science Foundation are missing 20-to-30 percent of their back pay, Dave Verardo, president of AFGE Local 3403, told reporters Wednesday.

Some employees received more than the usual amount in recent paychecks. One NSF employee was paid three times in one day and still came up short, Verardo said. The agency said most employees should be made whole by the end of this week, he added.

Though most employees who receive their paychecks from the Interior Business Center got paid by the end of January, the IBC said some employees with a data entry or personnel status issue encountered a delay or partial payment. They should receive full back pay by the next pay cycle, which is scheduled for Feb. 12.

In addition, the IBC may not make all deductions from employee back payments, the center said in a message on its website. While the center said it would make basic retirement, Social Security, Thrift Savings Plan and tax deductions, allotments to the Combined Federal Campaign and other financial institutions wouldn’t be taken.

In guidance released shortly after agencies reopened, the Office of Personnel Management warned agency chief human capital officers initial retroactive payments may not include the usual deductions or additional overtime payments, for example. Payroll providers would need to work with each agency to make the necessary adjustments.

A similar situation occurred after the 16-day government shutdown in 2013, though the payroll mistakes that agencies dealt with then likely won’t near the severity and scope of pay confusion after the most recent lapse, said David Grant, a former senior executive who spent time at both FEMA and the IRS. He managed FEMA’s human capital portfolio during the 2013 shutdown and now serves as a partner for Potomac Ridge Consulting group.

“In 2013, we put payroll through and then had to correct errors later,” he said. “There are payroll nuances for everyone, but when we came back from the shutdown, we just shoved payroll out the door and did retroactive corrections the next pay period. We just wanted to get employees’ pay out the door.”

Challenges with payroll and human resources may continue for several more months, Grant said, which will likely frustrate employees and hinder their morale. The situation, of course, could worsen in the event of another government shutdown next week.

OPM answers other post-shutdown human resources questions

Verardo said NSF employees are also scrambling to answer other, unresolved human resources questions. Many in the agency are unsure how they should handle annual performance appraisals, for example.

“That cycle ends in March, and with people being out of work since Dec. 22 until recently, it’s not clear how you actually assess people who haven’t been working for a big chunk of the year,” he said.

Recent OPM guidance, while mum on the topic of performance appraisals, answers a variety of other human resources questions related to the government shutdown.

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OPM will, for example, extend the typical 90-day time period for submitting Senior Executive Service executive core qualification (ECQ) packages for review. Vacancy announcements that closed before the government shutdown began on Dec. 22 should be extended by 22 days, the number of business days of the lapse.

Submissions that closed or were due during the shutdown will also get an extension, OPM said.

Probationary periods that ended during the government shutdown, however, won’t get an extension.

OPM is interpreting the Government Employee Fair Treatment Act, which provided back pay to all employees impacted by the recent shutdown as having placed furloughed employees into pay status at the beginning of the lapse.

“In accordance with OPM regulations, periods of absence while in a pay status count toward completion of probation,” new guidance reads. “Adverse action procedural and appeal rights accrue as soon as the applicable continuous service requirement is met and those provisions are not tolled during a furlough.”

This same interpretation applies to other questions. The government shutdown doesn’t impact an employees’ completion of requirements for career tenure, for example.

For this same reason, previously-scheduled grade increases will continue as planned. Similarly, time-in-grade requirements for promotion purposes aren’t compromised because of the government shutdown.

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