Federal workforce on pins and needles again

09/30/2013 5:28 PM

09/30/2013 5:28 PM

Thousands of Kansas City-area federal workers watched with nervousness and frustration Monday as Congress and the White House contemplated another hit to their bank accounts.

Fresh from a summer of sequester-mandated, unpaid furloughs, the workers faced the possibility of federal agencies without spending authority, unable to pay salaries or issue new grants and contracts to private firms.

Government shutdowns, they said, are getting old.

“They’re gambling with the livelihoods of government employees and their families,” said Craig Vandervort, who represents workers at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. His co-workers, he said, “are concerned about feeding their kids and paying their bills.”

Melissa Witcher represents workers at the Environmental Protection Agency, one of the government agencies considered most vulnerable to shutdown-related furloughs.

“Workers again will face a kitchen table full of bills and little or no paycheck to pay them,” she said. “With no money, how do they continue to manage? Do they skip paying the rent or mortgage, a utility, or are they forced to look in the faces of their children and buy less food?”

There are an estimated 41,000 federal workers in the Kansas City metropolitan area, scattered across more than 140 federal agencies. The federal government is the area’s biggest employer.

The Greater Kansas City Federal Executive Board represents those agencies, but a spokesman declined comment Monday.

It wasn’t immediately clear exactly how many federal workers in the area would face time away from work after a government shutdown.

Thousands of Kansas City-area federal workers deemed “essential” — from FBI agents to air traffic controllers — would remain on the job. Nurses at the VA Medical Center would not be affected, nor would federal court judges, at least for now. Mail would be delivered. Social Security checks will be on time.

Use of the new health insurance marketplaces, which start Tuesday, was not expected to be disrupted by any government shutdown.

But new claims processing could slow for Social Security and veterans’ benefits. Internal Revenue Service employees here and across the country would face time off, delaying audits and returns processing. Pending contracts with private companies might also be delayed, affecting hundreds of private-sector workers who depend on federal spending.

Federal employees at affected agencies said they glanced at the television throughout the day Monday as the debate over a shutdown unfolded. President Barack Obama spoke about 4 p.m.

Rep. Kevin Yoder, a Republican from the 3rd district of Kansas, said he understood the frustration of the federal workforce.

“It’s unacceptable that Republicans and Democrats cannot come up with a solution to avoid a government shutdown,” he said. “We must do everything we can in the coming hours and days to work towards a reasonable solution.”

Yoder, like the other GOP representatives from the Kansas City area, has voted several times in recent days for government funding bills that include changes to the Affordable Care Act. Democrats, including local members of Congress, have rejected those changes, leading to the stalemate and potential shutdown.

While federal-worker furloughs in a shutdown will resemble those from the spring sequester, there are potential differences.

A shutdown furlough could go on for days, perhaps weeks. Sequester furloughs were for a fixed time period.

At the same time, workers furloughed in the sequester have likely lost that income. Workers furloughed in a government shutdown, by contrast, may eventually receive back pay for time missed.

That’s been the pattern in previous shutdowns. Vandervort, though, is skeptical.

“We doubt we would be paid for those days in today’s political climate,” he said.

Federal employees who must stay on the job will be paid.

Workers who would be affected by the shutdown were notified over the past week. The Office of Management and Budget issued initial guidance to local agencies in mid-September.

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