A government shutdown can be an unpredictable and trying time for the members of a federal employee union. Whether they're on temporary leave or deemed "essential," they aren't being paid — despite the ongoing financial demands of everyday life.
In these instances, the union becomes a vital lifeline and should be prepared not only to push out updates on the shutdown and providing contact information for critical services, but also to answer questions and offer as much assistance as possible.
The Effects of a Shutdown
A shutdown occurs when regular congressional appropriations lapse. At this time, federal personnel fall into one of two categories: nonessential and essential/excepted. Nonessential employees are placed on temporary leave and cannot conduct normal work duties until the shutdown ends.
The federal employee union members considered essential are those responsible for conducting the duties necessary for protecting human life and property. Examples include federal law enforcement and correctional officers, Transportation Security Administration workers and Border Patrol. These employees are expected to report to work and, by law, are prohibited from striking or taking time off. According to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), an excepted employee who refuses to report to work "will be considered to be absent without leave (AWOL) and will be subject to any consequences that may follow," including disciplinary action or termination.
Neither nonessential nor essential workers receive a regular paycheck during a shutdown, and Congress must pass legislation to provide back pay.
Providing Support to Members
Maintaining two-way communication with your members is essential both during and after a shutdown. You can't get them back on the job, but you can proactively arm your members with the information they need to make the shutdown as bearable as possible.
Start by providing information on the benefits your members are entitled to during a shutdown, whether they're offered directly through the union or a partner organization. Motivate members to seek out the assistance they need by providing information on local food banks and child care networks, and encourage them to contact credit card companies, mortgage lenders and banks to request leniency until the government reopens.
Your members are entitled to apply for unemployment and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, although they should be cautioned that they may be required to pay back any unemployment benefits they receive and must immediately report SNAP income changes once the shutdown ends.
The union should be prepared to provide regular updates (via email and on a website) alerting members to any bills being considered in Congress, including those to reopen the government or provide back pay. It is also vital that members be kept apprised of their rights during and after a shutdown and, especially if they're essential, reminded that they're expected to be on the job. You can also direct members to the OPM's furlough and pay guidance.
Maintaining Communications After the Shutdown
When the government reopens, provide regular updates on when members can expect back pay, if it's being made available. But above all, make sure your members know that the union is there to support them.
While it might not seem like the most pressing issue to government workers in the moment, ensure that your members know how to access services to address any long-term psychological concerns. A study published in 2018 in the Journal of Career Development looked at federal workers after the 2013 16-day shutdown and found that it "decreased life satisfaction and increased work-family conflict and physical, cognitive, and emotional burnout 5 weeks after the shutdown ended."
Members may be focused on answering backlogged emails and digging out of the work that amassed while they were away, but urge them to take time to recharge outside of the office. Offer them contact information for government or union resources for psychological assistance and prompt them to take advantage of what's available.
Many federal employees see their jobs as a calling. They deeply believe in the importance of public service, and when that's threatened, they're likely to turn to their trusted union leaders for guidance and assistance. Be ready with the information members need to support themselves personally and professionally.