OPM issues updated furlough guidance as shutdown deadline looms

Despite assurances from Capitol Hill that a shutdown is unlikely, the Office of Personnel Management continued to plan for a government closure in the waning hours of fiscal 2015.

OPM on Wednesday issued updated shutdown furlough guidance, hours before the deadline passes to fund the government for fiscal 2016 and the government closes for business.

“In a shutdown furlough, an affected agency would have to shut down any activities funded by annual appropriations that are not excepted by law,” the guidance said. “Typically, an agency will have very little to no lead time to plan and implement a shutdown furlough.”

The guidance includes 15 updates, ranging from revisions of official time for union officials and how to alert employees about a notice to furlough, to new additions such as excepted employees under the Family and Medical Leave Act and notice about unemployment insurance.

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“This guidance applies to activities that are funded by annual appropriations,” OPM said in its update. “Some agency functions have alternative funding sources and, as a result, are not directly affected by a lapse in annual appropriations. Employees performing those functions will generally continue to be governed by the normal pay, leave, and other civil service rules. Agencies should consult with their legal counsel if they have further questions concerning this distinction. Employees should consult with their Human Resources office.”

Under the updated guidance, union officials “may continue to be granted official time to the same extent and in the same manner as they would under nonshutdown conditions. In general, other employees serving as union officials may not work on official time during a shutdown, because they would be authorized to work official time only while they are in a duty status.”

The guidance said employees must eventually receive written notice of a furlough, and while advance written notice is ideal, “any reasonable notice (e.g., telephonic, oral, personal email, or by mail promptly after the furlough) is permissible when the furlough decision is made.”

The update also newly outlines that a furlough period does not count against an employee’s 12 weeks of unpaid leave during a 12-month period under the FMLA.

“An excepted employee may face circumstances that would normally qualify him or her for unpaid leave under FMLA,” the guidance said. “The employing agency should allow such an excepted employee to be placed in a furlough status (a form of unpaid leave) for appropriate periods, consistent with his or her rights under FMLA.

Agencies are also directed to give furloughed employees Form SF-8, which provides information on filing for unemployment, and might be required if they file a claim with their State unemployment insurance agency.

Congress has until 11:59 p.m. Sept. 30 to pass a budget. Without a funding plan on the first day of the fiscal year — Oct. 1 — the government shuts down.

On Wednesday morning, the temporary funding measure that would keep the government open sailed through the Senate, moving on to a badly divided House. It’s expected to reach President Barack Obama’s desk on Wednesday night.

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