Furloughed Feds May Have to Turn in Cellphones, Other Mobile Devices

Richard Drew/AP

Law prohibits government employees from working outside the office in the event of a shutdown.

Federal employees forced off the job during a government shutdown may have to turn in their government-issued BlackBerrys, iPhones and other mobile devices Tuesday morning, according to White House guidance on technology matters.  

“Prohibitions of the Antideficiency Act extend to work performed from outside of the office, including via mobile devices or remote computer connections,” according to a Sept. 17 memo issued by the Office of Management and Budget.

The Antideficiency Act makes it illegal for the federal government to engage in activities for which it is not funded. The law does, however, allow for employees and services deemed “essential” to continue working, creating significant challenges for technology administrators who must determine how their systems and networks will continue to support essential functions without violating prohibitions against performing unfunded operations.  

OMB’s guidance gives agencies responsibility for parsing the law’s requirements in the electronic age. Officials are to conduct “orderly shutdown procedures” Tuesday morning, but those procedures, which should take no more than two to three hours to complete, should not rely on notifying employees via smartphone or home access to work email. In other words, employees will have to come into the office to learn they are not allowed to continue working.   

“Agencies have discretion to enforce these access restrictions in light of their own particular needs,” OMB wrote. “Some may choose, for example, to include in orderly shutdown activities a requirement that furloughed employees turn in their Blackberries until they return to the office; others may determine that circumstances warrant a different approach,” the memo said.

Most agencies did not specifically address the issue of government-supplied cellphones, tablets and other mobile devices in the guidance they provided employees, but there were some exceptions: 

The Housing and Urban Development Department told workers: “You are prohibited from using HUD-provided devices (such as laptops, Blackberries, iPads, cell phones) during the furlough. You are also prohibited from using remote access to HUD email, HUDmobile, HUD business systems, or other HUD provided electronic capabilities.”

In its guidance to staff, the State Department said, "non-excepted employees should turn off all department-provided mobile devices, and excepted personnel should not communicate with non-excepted employees. For purposes of communicating work status to non-excepted employees, supervisors should have employee personal contact information on file."

It's not clear how employees will know in all cases which of their colleagues have been furloughed.

At NASA, no furloughed employees may access their work email or voicemail accounts or use BlackBerrys or other government-issued mobile devices. However, some furloughed employees may be designated as “on call” for emergency needs during the shutdown. Those employees are expected to regularly check email, or if that’s not available to them for some reason, to use alternative means to stay in contact with agency officials.

“No other use is permitted by any furloughed employee,” the NASA guidance states. “Employees who use NASA IT resources, such as their email account, for personal use under the acceptable use policy should make other arrangements prior to shutdown if they may want to receive such during the shutdown (e.g., change the destination for personal email).”

How will those employees know when to return to work? “The Office of Personnel Management will post operating status on their website at www.opm.gov,” the guidance notes. But employees will have to use their personal computers to do that.

This story has been updated.

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