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Fiscal Policy: “Nonessential” Government Workers

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Sep 28, 2013    •    1118 Views

Who is “nonessential?”

No one.

When the last lengthy shutdown unfolded for 21 days at the end 1995 into 1996, furloughed government workers objected to being called nonessential. One HHS deputy secretary said, “I want to make the point clearly that all HHS employees are essential.” Other officials added, “I also feel that the term ‘nonessential’ must be eliminated from the federal vocabulary.

And it was.

Now, documents say “excepted” or “non-excepted.” (Excepted people go to work.) Also, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) refers to furloughed employees as “released” and those who remain as “retained.” And if your agency is untouched because it has continued funding, those employees are called “exempt.”

So, who is excepted and released if there is an Oct. 1 partial government shutdown?

Moving on an imaginary scale of examples from no impact, to total and back to partial, we can start with the Federal Reserve. Self-funded, it will be unaffected. As you might expect, air traffic control continues and the animals in the National Zoo will be fed. At the Supreme Court, all sounds pretty normal with their new session starting on October 7 and the federal courts say their reserve funds will let them continue operating for about 2 weeks. By contrast the Environmental Protection Agency, museums and zoos will pretty much close down. As for agencies like the Defense Department and Commerce, it will depend on whether the worker performs an “excepted” function.

A question: Instead of “excepted,” what word would you select?

Sources and resources: If you want to check out details like, “Excepted employees include employees who are performing emergency work…” BUT…”Emergency employees are not automatically deemed excepted employees for purposes of shutdown furloughs,”  then I recommend this government document. More readable, this Congressional Research Service report explains shutdown basics. The serious impact of these fiscal policy decisions on almost one million workers came across, though, in the Washington Post’s Federal Insider series of columns. Also, econlife looked at the budget facts we need to know to understand a shutdown.

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