Systems folks facing furloughs just like other federal workers

Federal information technology workers can expect no special
treatment if the president and Congress cannot resolve their budget differences or work
out a temporary funding arrangement by month's end.


If the government shuts down Oct. 1, the decision on who will be furloughed and who
will continue on the job is being left to each department, and there are no special
requirements involving the continued operation of government systems.


"It will vary from office to office and bureau to bureau within the
department," Treasury Department spokesman Calvin Mitchell said.


The personnel decisions will be mission-driven. IT systems in each department will be
maintained only to the extent necessary to maintain essential functions, agency officials
said.


"It really is tied to the programmatic interpretation," said Alan Balutis,
director of budget, planning and organization at the Commerce Department.


It is easy to identify some offices that will be exempt from furloughs. At Commerce,
for instance, the Patent and Trademark Office and the National Technical Information
Service, which are fully fee-funded, would remain open in the event of a shutdown.


At Treasury, the Comptroller of the Currency, Bureau of Printing and Engraving, and the
Office of Thrift Supervision would continue to operate, because they are not funded by
annual appropriations.


It is more difficult to say who will be sent home. Departmental shutdown plans were
being reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget less than three weeks before the
Oct. 1 deadline, and no final figures were available.


There are some general outlines developing, however.


At Commerce, only about 7,000 of the 29,000 employees outside of PTO and NTIS will be
kept on board, most of those work at the National Weather Service, Balutis said. This
computer-driven function will require a substantial number of IT workers to keep on the
job.


At the Social Security Administration, on the other hand, the emphasis will be on
maintaining minimal staffing at its 1,300 field offices.


"There will be systems personnel that will have to continue working to keep the
systems operating," SSA spokesman Phil Gambino said. "But in pure numbers, the
greatest number will be working in the field offices."


The General Services Administration, prepping for the halt as if it were a natural
disaster, plans to maintain its nationwide telecommunications service as well as contract
and service support for excepted agency customers, said Joe Thompson, commissioner of
GSA's Information Technology Service.


This means ITS would have a minimum number of people working to support regional
telecommunications programs, the National Security Emergency Preparedness program, federal
information processing services for government units still on duty and information
security needs.


"We need to maintain the infrastructure," Thompson said. "The backbone
networks for communications must be supported, and we could use FTS 2000 and the local
services contracts to pick up from desktop to desktop. But we will not have LANs because
it's not clear what employees will be there. It depends on the customer."


Under federal guidelines from OMB, those workers exempt from furlough are involved in
protection of life and property. The attorney general and OMB do not use the term
"essential" in describing employees or services. All employees are essential,
they say. But some are more essential than others.


One operation requiring significant numbers of IT personnel is issuing benefits
payments, said John Ortego, director of GSA's ITS Federal Systems Management Support
Division.


"Will the government continue to issue benefits checks? I haven't seen any
guidance yet on whether all benefits programs will be considered essential," Ortego
said.


SSA has said that it will continue to provide benefit checks, but not all federal
benefits will continue.


At the Agriculture Department, "the program that most people are worried about is
Food Stamps," said Philip Shanholtzer, spokesman for USDA's Food and Consumer
Service. The equation there is simple: No appropriations, no stamps.


Any Food Stamps already issued can be distributed and redeemed by the states, but when
they're gone, they're gone, Shanholtzer said. "If this agency is shut down, our IRM
functions will be shut down as well."


Shanholtzer expressed some optimism that there would be an agreement reached before the
Oct. 1 deadline.


"I think everybody is feeling a little encouraged now as the language from Capitol
Hill is becoming a little more conciliatory," he said. "They realize that nobody
wins in the event of a shutdown. There is more and more talk of a continuing
resolution."


About the Authors


William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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