Federal policies stifle furloughed workers from helping themselves during the shutdown

Federal policies stifle furloughed workers from helping themselves during the shutdown

Written by Dan Evans
Published 21 January 2019

(Banner image source: Scott Olson/Getty Images, via Axios)

Thanks to the ongoing partial government shutdown, hundreds of thousands of American employees are entering their second month without pay. Many of them have been mandated to return to work, to maintain operational infrastructure that is essential to our country (yet apparently not essential enough to guarantee their pay). Two notable examples are the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Coast Guard, which together provide invaluable safety and security to the United States.

The media has played up the plights of these workers, particularly the growing absence rates of TSA employees. But what should be getting just as much attention is the perfect storm of restrictive policies that prevent furloughed employees from helping themselves through the shutdown.

Many federal employees often lack the time and energy to find immediate stop-gap sources of income to tide them over. And even if they did, many federal agencies have complicated policies that govern whether or not furloughed employees would even be able to find work – not to mention that employers’ hiring processes often take at least a few weeks. Additionally, as was explained in a recent USA Today article, online fundraisers, such as those on GoFundMe, to support federal employees likely violate government ethics rules. And lastly, federal employees who successfully file for unemployment benefits are required to repay them when (or if…) they receive back-pay. With so many Americans currently unable to withstand a substantial unexpected financial emergency, the end result of these many restrictions is desperation.

I spoke with one such restricted employee – an air traffic controller who works for the FAA after several years of service in the Navy and the Department of Defense. He has been ordered to work without pay, and in his need to feed his two children, he has potentially risked his employment by using GoFundMe to try to make ends meet.

“We are stuck in a horrifying limbo, an anxiety-inducing purgatory. But we are unable to seek help during the government shutdown because we could face punitive action due to our code of ethics. 

Even if I did pick myself up by the bootstraps and find other gainful employment, it would mean walking away from a career that I spent years training for. My family needs to eat NOW. My bills are due NOW. Finding another job would take weeks, and it might bring in less than half the pay I was receiving before the shutdown.”

Our contact did stress that the National Air Traffic Controllers Association is “doing everything in their power to end this shutdown and help us.” But air traffic control has a testy history with the government over employee rights. In 1985, negotiations over better working conditions between the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) union and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) broke down. Angry with the outcome, nearly 13,000 federally employed controllers went on strike. After ignoring his order for them to return the work, then-President Ronald Reagan immediately fired 11,000 of them, and PATCO was decertified later that year.

By not providing appropriate flexibility in their protective policies for contingency during government shutdowns – which are starting to occur more and more frequently – federal agencies have contributed to the woes of their currently furloughed employees. As the country moves forward into even more uncertain territory, these agencies must address the new reality that current policy infrastructure can work against their employees’ interests – and, by extension, the interests of the American public.

It is imperative that federal policymakers work to resolve these issues to protect the hundreds of thousands of Americans who are getting caught in the crossfire of partisan politics.