Legislation signed to provide back pay to furloughed federal workers

federal government sign Capitol building
Jewel Samad photo.

The House and Senate has passed and the President has signed legislation ensuring that furloughed federal workers or those working without pay during the partial government shutdown will receive pay.

The White House announced Wednesday that the Government Employee Fair Treatment Act of 2019 “requires the compensation of government employees for wages lost, work performed, or leave used during a lapse in appropriations that begins on or after December 22, 2018, and entitles excepted employees to use leave during a lapse in appropriations.”

Employees, who began last week or this week receiving pay stubs showing zero dollars paid, will still not be reimbursed until the shutdown is over. This provides some light at the end of the tunnel, but until then many who live paycheck to paycheck will still have serious financial difficulties in the meantime.

Shutdown affects firefighter hiring, training, fire conferences, and many other programs

If the shutdown continues much longer, training and the hiring of seasonal firefighters will be seriously affected

Firefighters training Guernsey, Wyoming
Firefighters training at Guernsey, Wyoming. File photo.

The most serious effect of the federal government furloughing 40 percent of their full time employees is the fact that they are not being paid. Most of the 800,000 people will begin receiving nothing on their regular paydays this week or next. After political circus is over, Congress and the President may or may not arrange for them to receive lump sum payments for the laid off period, but until then many folks and their families that live paycheck to paycheck could have difficulty making payments for rent, mortgage, vehicles, medical bills, and food. In addition, health insurance premiums will have to be paid at some point, possibly after the furlough is over.

Firefighter hiring

This is normally the time of the year when federal agencies that fight wildfires are heavily into the hiring of seasonal firefighters and other workers. The process may vary a bit among the federal agencies and from region to region, but generally by the first part of January they have been accepting applications for several months — officials could have started evaluating candidates in mid-December.

A furloughed firefighter told us what will happen next under the current conditions:

[This time] there is no local contact at each of the districts for applicants to get more information about the location, help in using the USA Jobs site, and just general information. It will be a huge catchup game once the government does “reopen” in terms of getting interviews scheduled, seeing who is still available and interested in the job, and getting those new people scheduled for medicals, pack tests,  and rookie schools.

Conferences

We are aware of at least one fire-related event that has been canceled. A three-day workshop in Missoula that is part of a multi-year project titled “Identifying ecological and social resilience in fire-prone landscapes” was scheduled to begin January 29. Two-thirds of the 25 attendees who planned to attend were from the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management. Room blocks in hotels had been reserved and some had bought airline tickets. The organizers hope to reschedule the workshop when that becomes possible.

The five-day American Meteorological Society annual meeting that usually attracts thousands of participants is occurring now in Phoenix. Hundreds of employees from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (which includes the National Weather Service) and possibly some land management agencies as well, will not be able to have their travel expenses paid by the federal government. Last year NOAA sent more than 400 scientists to the meeting.

From the Washington Post:

This meeting is where scientists hatch new ideas for lifesaving methods and warnings, said Dan Sobien, the president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization. “Any delay in that research could someday cost someone their life, and that person could be you or me,” Sobien said. Not having NWS meteorologists there to collaborate “will likely cost many more lives than the absence of any border wall, anywhere.”

Some attendees at the meeting tweeted about the effects of the shutdown.

Wildland fire training is being affected

Firefighters in state and federal agencies have clearly defined paths to qualify for the career ladder of jobs, as well as specific firefighting positions defined in the National Interagency Incident Management System (NIIMS). Every position on the organization chart at a fire or other incident is supposed to be filled by a person who has advanced through previous lower level positions, and for the next position has completed all of the classes and on-the-job training that is required. If one step is missed, because a training class was cancelled during the shutdown, it can set the individuals back for at least a year until they can compete to reschedule the class. They will be told, “maybe next year.”

“Some (most) firefighters look at training as a way to further their career and some look at it as a reward for busting ass the previous season”, one firefighter told us. “It allows one to further their career  or branch out into a different area. If you are stuck as an Engine Boss because you can’t get into Strike Team Leader class, it wears down on you. ”

Most of the wildland firefighter training is conducted during the off season, from late Fall into Spring. One firefighter told us that the training calendar in some areas is scrubbed for the month of January, including at least seven classes in Boise.

(If you know of other effects of the shutdown on individuals, training, or events, tell us about it in a comment.)

Shutdown stories from firefighters, Chapter 2

800,000 people and their families are directly affected, in addition to contractors, concessioners, and businesses.

Great Plains Dispatch office
The Great Plains Dispatch office in Rapid City, South Dakota as seen in 2012. (The person who provided the information below does not work in this state.)

The shutdown that affects 800,000 people and their families, or 40 percent of the federal government’s full time employees, continues. A meeting Wednesday afternoon of the principles in Washington about how to find a resolution to the crisis was very brief, with no progress being made. The President said a few days ago the shutdown could last up to a year.

On January 9 we published a perspective written by a federal wildland firefighter that explained how the shutdown affected his or her family. Today we have another view. It has been lightly edited for length and readability.

A U.S. Forest Service employee in California supervising a staff that provides support for wildland firefighters told us that the shutdown could lead to retirement earlier than previously expected:


“Thanks for digging into this and making folks aware”, the person wrote. “I am not politically active because I can’t be. We have been reminded that under this Administration we are under rules to not engage. We don’t have a voice and can’t speak out. Many of us are very frustrated with the way we get treated as hostages.

“I am pretty fed up with this BS. My contracts are now a mess. My contractors are about to run out of work — they will never get back pay. They are the ones that really get screwed.

“My bank is allowing interest free “furlough” loans with deferred repay for 90 days. I am taking advantage of this so I can hold out. Many others are signing up for unemployment now if they don’t have a bank as nice as mine. Some banks are attempting to make money on this with absurd costs for a loan.

“Most of us take a federal job because we care, it’s not to make money, it’s to make a difference. I know I can make thousands more elsewhere, but I love my job and I respect the work I do to protect the tax payers money. I pay taxes too. As I look to close out my career, I hope that politicians will stop using staff as pawns.

“Most Federal employees don’t make much money. They live pay check to pay check and worry about family and friends. They commit to volunteer work and support others when they are in need. It is not our choice to be off. Getting paid afterwards is an embarrassment, so much so that many of us put in 100’s of extra hours to make up the lost days. In all of the previous furloughs where we were paid afterwards I spent many hours catching up.

“A lost paycheck can impact your mortgage, credit card payment, utility bills, rent, etc. it takes up to a month to get any back pay, if it comes through, this is never guaranteed. What if you or your loved ones are sick, or you are supporting sick kids, aging parents, or friends that have lost everything? Many Federal employees lost their homes this year in fires, yet they continued to go to work with the only clothes they had — to help the recovery process. They fought fires to save other’s homes, while their own burned and their families were at risk. They continue to rebuild their communities while being on furlough. That is commitment — this is how they get treated.

“Sadly this will lead, again, to loss of quality staff, fed up with being treated as a pawn in high politics. Some will retire, some will go find other jobs, morale will again be terribly low — we don’t recover easily from these things. When you treat your staff like crap it is really hard to bring them back to feeling good about what they do.”

Firefighters describe how the government shutdown affects them

Shep Canyon Fire, Black Hills South Dakota
Shep Canyon Fire, Black Hills of South Dakota. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Beginning this week the partial government shutdown that began December 22 gets real, affecting 800,000 employees and their families, about 40 percent of the full time federal workforce. For many of the workers, checks that would normally arrive or be electronically deposited the middle of this week or next week will be missing in action. The lack of pay will continue until the President and Congress can agree to end the shutdown.

poll government shutdown federal employeesOn January 4 we conducted a brief two-hour poll on Twitter, asking federal government employees if they were in favor of the shutdown. We limited it to two hours to minimize the ability of special interest groups to mobilize and flood the poll with partisan answers. It is not a scientific representative sample by any means, and we can’t guarantee that only federal employees participated, but you may find it interesting. Of the 74 votes, 81 percent were not in favor of the partial government shutdown, while 19 percent were for it.

We also asked a few federal employees to tell us in detail how the shutdown was affecting them personally. Below is one of the responses, lightly edited for length and readability. We will post more responses from furloughed employees in the coming days.

A Bureau of Land Management firefighter in the Western United States said sometimes people that don’t know who he works for tell him it’s not a big deal federal employees are not getting paid:


“I try and explain”, he told us, “that even though people work for the federal government it does not mean that they are not like everyone else out there in the US that work paycheck to paycheck. These people have lives, bills, expenses, and medical issues that everyone else has. Is it the public’s perception that because one works for the government that they are paid well, and don’t have the same struggles as everyone else does?

“[The shutdown] is politically motivated. For the president and Congress to hold the country hostage is completely wrong and misguided. I am married, my wife does not work, except to take care of our [children]. I depend on my job to provide for the family. It’s why I went full time after being the typical hotshot employee, where it was just me. I knew then my job was part time and I always had [another job] to get me through until Spring when we would ramp back up with the shots. It’s not like that now — it’s family and long term job stability that I/we want.

“We have savings we are living on now, savings that were meant to go towards the land and house we are buying that now is on hold. Not knowing how long this will last is the hard part. The complete uncertainty of when it will happen again leaves me to question if this is the time to buy anything? I haven’t mentioned it to my wife, but I can’t have uncertainly in my life now, I have people depending on me, something I didn’t have before. Is it fair of me to continue in a job where even during the best of times, I am gone, literally for a minimum of 4 months out of the year? Add this crap shutdown, yes, I am home, but without a paycheck, it leaves very little for a family to be able to do. Sure as hell cant run down for a Disneyland vacation.

“As far as the office, no winter work is getting done, fuel reduction projects are all on hold, no hiring, not being able to start looking at who wants to come to work. [Incident Management] Team nominations are due. Who applied and when will we be able to notify those people that they were accepted onto a team? Will those people still be around, or did they move on because of the shutdown? Team meetings need to be planned. This year all Great Basin teams, type 1, 2, and 3 are meeting in Reno, will that networking happen, or when government reopens will the backlog of missed work take precedence? Training is on hold, with some of the classes completely out of the question of being made up, thereby delaying needed training for employees, and adding to the stress of this job. How much time will we have to get the refresher and pack test done before fire season is once again upon us?

“I also think the tactic that Trump used to deny the 2% pay increase [for 2019] was chickens***. One thing I hear over and over is that retention is related to the amount someone is paid. A GS 3/4 making $12 an hour won’t be coming back without something more in the paycheck. To deny that minimal 2% to the hard working federal employees is nothing but a kick in the ass.”