A federal employee’s ethics guide during future government shutdowns

The Office of Government Ethics has finally weighed in on what it described as a “number of ethics-related issues” that arose during recent government shutdowns.

The agency late last week issued new guidance designed to help federal employees during the next government shutdown. It applies to any employee not getting paid during a lapse in appropriations — furloughed and excepted employees working without pay.

In general, there are two ethics principles that federal employees should consider ahead of future government shutdowns. First, employees can’t accept a gift from a “prohibited source,” or anyone who seeks to do business with or already does business with their agency. Second, employees can’t use their status as a member of the federal workforce to accept a gift.

Federal employees are wise to avoid online crowdsourcing campaigns, such as the GoFundMe sites that dozens of individuals started during the last 35-day partial government shutdown, OGE said. But the agency doesn’t rule out the possibility completely.

In general, a federal employee would have to word their solicitation for gifts carefully — and would need to be able to verify the source of every donation they receive.

Specifically, employees, or a person acting their behalf, shouldn’t solicit gifts based on their federal employment, OGE Director Emory Rounds wrote in Feb. 15 guidance. Employees shouldn’t mention their titles, agencies or status as a federal worker in any solicitation for donations.

“An employee would need to be able to identify and reject such prohibited donations,” the guidance continues. “An employee could accept donations from the employee’s friends or relatives when it is clear that any donations accepted are based on that friendship or family relationship. Given the number of potential ethical pitfalls, OGE strongly encourages employees to consult an ethics official before any such campaign begins.”

Federal employees could, however, accept help from a crowdsourcing site designed to offer assistance to a large group of federal employees, as long as the site doesn’t single out a specific group, rank or pay class of the workforce. Again, donations can’t come from a prohibited source, OGE said.

Can I accept a free meal or loan during a government shutdown?

Free meals or other discounts that restaurants and other businesses extend to federal employees during a government shutdown are generally okay, OGE said.

“As long as the offer is extended to all federal employees, it may be accepted as a benefit available to a class consisting of all government employees or all uniformed military personnel, even if the offer is restricted by geography,” Rounds wrote.

Free Metro rides to all federal employees who show a government ID card, for example, are okay.

Employees can also accept help from food banks or religious organizations that offer assistance to the general public.

But the situation gets slightly trickier if a restaurant offers free meals, for example, to only furloughed federal employees. In this case, employees can generally accept the deal geared only toward furloughed workers if the business or organization isn’t a prohibited source, OGE added.

The same guidance applies to no or low-interest loans from a bank or credit union, OGE said. Loans offered to the general public or all federal employees as a whole are okay. But for offers geared only to furloughed workers, employees should again check the source.

What about gifts from friends, family or co-workers?

Career employees can accept a gift — not cash — that’s worth $20 or less. They can’t accept gifts worth more than $50 from the same person in one year.

Accepting financial assistance from friends and family is okay too, as long as the relationship itself is the driving factor.

“An employee may likely accept a $1,000 cash loan offered by a family member or close friend,” OGE said. “However, an employee would generally need to decline a similar offer from a friend who works for an agency’s contractor where employee’s official duties affect the contractor.”

In addition, federal employees can’t give, donate to or solicit gifts for an official supervisor and can’t accept gifts from subordinates who earn less pay.

There are some exceptions, such as if an employee brings in small gifts worth $10 or less or food to share with the office, OGE said.

Can I take on outside employment during a government shutdown?

Agencies were better equipped to answer this question than perhaps others during the most recent government shutdown, but OGE has offered more detail.

Federal employees generally can take an outside job, as long as it doesn’t conflict with their official duties for their agency. This scenario is unlikely, OGE acknowledged, unless the outside employer interacts with the federal employee’s agency in some way.

OGE encouraged federal employees who do take on another job during a government shutdown to speak with their agency’s ethics officers after returning to work to ensure “whether their outside employment during the lapse would require them not to work on matters involving their former employer for a period of one year.”

OGE also encouraged employees to speak with their agency’s ethics officials before a government shutdown begins, because many officers may be difficult or impossible to reach during a lapse in appropriations.

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