Agencies scramble to define critical functions as shutdown looms

Vital technology systems and scientific research will continue uninterrupted, albeit with minimal staff.

This story has been updated

With just hours left before the federal government runs out of money, departments began posting plans for shutting themselves down until Congress passes a new 2011 funding plan.

The White House Office of Management and Budget warned employees not to use BlackBerrys, laptop computers and other devices during a government shutdown. It also put limits on teleworking.

In a memo to agency and department heads, OMB Director Jacob Lew said furloughed employees are expected to come to work for a half day -- four hours -- on the first day the government runs out of money to carry out an "orderly shutdown."

That includes picking up a furlough notice and adjusting voicemail and email messages to reflect the shutdown. Agencies may let employees do this via computer, but only "if the nature of the employees' shutdown activities are de minimus (i.e., can be completed in approximately 15 minutes)," Lew's memo says.

It appears that government employees who have telework agreements with their agencies and were scheduled to telework on the first day of the shutdown can work the full four hours, as all furloughed workers are expected to do.

As senior officials made arrangements to temporarily lay off up to 800,000 federal workers, departments, bureaus and agencies declared some work too important to stop.

As plans are finalized, Nextgov will track developments at major departments and agencies. This information will be updated often:


At the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, three workers in the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, three in the National Ocean Service and three in the National Weather Service will continue to monitor radiation drifting toward the United States from Japan's tsunami-stricken nuclear power plant.

Climate scientists who collect data for "crucial long-term historical climate records" also will continue to work. And controllers who operate NOAA's weather satellites will stay on the job, according to the department's Plan for Orderly Shutdown Due to Lapse of Congressional Appropriations.

Aircraft fitted with gamma ray technology will continue to measure the depth and extent of North American snowpack because the measurements are critical to Weather Service hydrologic forecast models.

Also, three information technology specialists who work for the chief information officer will remain on duty as part of a national computer incident response team.

Commerce, which oversees agencies as diverse as NOAA, the Patent and Trademark Office, and the Census Bureau, has declared 16,743 of its 46,761 employees exempt from furloughs.

They will continue forecasting the weather, policing marine fisheries, supporting the Gulf oil spill cleanup, updating nautical charts for shipping, protecting research labs, and enforcing export control laws.

Most research will stop at the department. So will support for grant recipients, Census Bureau economic analysis, statistics crunching and minority business development.

The department's new media director will work for a day shutting down some Commerce websites.

All employees are to report to work on the first day of the shutdown for four hours to "prepare for an orderly transition, such as setting an out-of-office message" on phones and email, the shutdown plan says.


At the Transportation Department, more employees will remain on the job -- 40,141 -- than the 17,870 who will be furloughed. Aviation safety workers account for about 29,000 of those exempt from furloughs.

Research on alternative fuels, navigation and global positioning would cease. All 128 employees of the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation would remain on the job because they are not funded through the 2011 federal budget, but 139 of the 141 employees of the Surface Transportation Board would be furloughed.

Aviation rule-making would stop, and so would facility security inspections, audits, dispute resolutions and personnel security background investigations.

Development, testing and evaluation of the NextGen air traffic control system also would halt.


Nearly everyone at the Justice Department dodges the furlough. The department's 2011 Contingency Plan says 94,261 of 117,579 employees -- 80.2 percent -- are exempt because they protect life and property, they are paid from funds outside the 2011 budget or they have other authority to continue working.

Sixteen employees funded through the Justice Information Sharing and Law Enforcement Wireless Communications programs will keep the Justice Security Operations Center operating around the clock to provide information security for department computer systems.

They will also oversee information technology operations and systems that support law enforcement operations during the shutdown.

Meanwhile, 38 of 216 employees in the National Drug Intelligence Center will keep working, as will 380 of 1,511 in the Executive Office for Immigration Review. They will continue processing the cases of aliens who have been arrested and are being detained.

"Criminal litigation will continue without interruption," the Justice shutdown plan says. "Civil litigation will be curtailed or postponed."

To police its own wrongdoing, the Justice Department will keep 158 of 468 workers in its inspector general's office. Their job is to investigate accusations of bribery, fraud, abuse, civil rights violations and other violations by Justice Department employees, contractors and grantees.

They also will work on "time-sensitive national security investigations," the department says.

In the National Security Division, Justice will keep 229 out of 307 employees at work on counterterrorism, espionage, export controls and sanctions violations.

Also excused from furloughs at Justice:>

-- Nearly 2,000 lawyers and other legal employees to pursue tax cases, criminal and civil litigation, environmental crimes, civil rights violations and to work with the international police agency INTERPOL.

-- 34,187 of 35,522 at the Bureau of Prisons.

-- 30,208 of 35,267 FBI employees, including 63 percent of the Science and Technology Branch. That includes the Criminal Justice Information Services Division that does fingerprint identification and laboratory work.

-- 7,437 of 8,842 of Drug Enforcement Administration employees.

-- 5,155 of 5,691 U.S. Marshals Service employees.

-- 4,206 of 5,117 employees at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Health and Human Services:

Medical care and the technology that supports it would continue at HHS despite a shutdown. Contingency staffing plans call for 12,444 doctors and other care providers to stay on the job, mostly at the Indian Health Service and the National Institutes of Health.

To help the medical team, an HHS contingency staffing plan says 235 computer specialists would be needed to maintain computer networks used in research and in patient care. Furlough exemptions would be granted to workers needed to run a hospital data network, clinical research information systems and radiology information systems.

Additional employees with "sophisticated data-handling expertise" would be kept on to curate medical data from external contractors and to ensure the integrity of experimental data systems, the contingency plan says.

A skeleton information technology crew also would be needed to ensure access to critical medical databases. But routine updating of the databases would not be done, HHS said.

About 1,250 workers would be kept on to conduct border inspections, product safety inspections, to report adverse events and related activity.

A number of HHS sub-agencies receive funding from sources other than the 2011 budget, and would be less affected by the shutdown. The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Food and Drug Administration and Indian Health Services fall into that category.

In all, HHS would furlough 47,693 workers and keep 28,655 on duty if a shutdown occurs.


How will furloughed employees know when to go back to work?

Read the paper and watch the news, the State Department advises: "You should monitor public broadcasts and when you hear that a continuing resolution or an FY 2011 appropriation for the department has been approved by Congress and signed by the President, you will be expected to return to work on your next regular work day," the department says in its Guidance in the Absence of Appropriations.

Meanwhile, furloughed workers should be careful not to work.

"No employee may work if he or she is in a non-excepted status ... Employees are advised that 'work' includes ... using fobs, Blackberrys, and teleworking," the guidance says.

For those who are exempt from furlough, keep email, other electronic messages and even telegrams to a minimum, the department says. "The Department will be minimally staffed if a shutdown occurs," so managers in the United States and overseas "are asked to reduce message traffic to include only the most urgent need."

Support for secure laptops, BlackBerrys and other mobile communications devices will be scarce and fewer people will be available to receive and respond to message traffic, the guidance warns.

In overseas posts, consular sections are to provide only limited services, but those include "support for consular [technology] systems, including software, fobs, Blackberrys, and laptops that are essential to support emergency consular functions," the guidance says.


Unlike other departments, most of Energy's funding comes from outside the annual budget, so a shutdown at midnight on Friday would not grind Energy operations to a halt. The department would begin furloughing employees only as programs exhaust the money they receive from other sources, spokeswoman Stephanie Mueller said.

A number of Energy operations, such as regional power marketing administrations and the Tennessee Valley Authority generate income, and so are somewhat or completely independent of the annual federal budget. Thus 3,106 employees there would be unaffected by a federal shutdown.

But if a shutdown lasts long enough to exhaust other Energy funds, 942 department workers would be exempt from furloughs and 14,167 could be temporarily laid off.

Among the non-furloughed workers would be 136 who would safeguard nuclear weapons, continue international non-proliferation activities and service nuclear reactors on Navy submarines and aircraft carriers around the world.

An Energy statement issued Friday said that regardless of a shutdown, some of its non-proliferation employees "need to stand ready for movement, dismantlement and safe harboring of nuclear materials, weapons parts and weapons systems."

Non-proliferation efforts often involve "the international movement of weapons grade and exploitable nuclear sources from at risk areas around the world ... Pick up and movement of these materials is not easily interrupted due to the sensitive and international nature of the activity."

Energy laboratories are more likely to experience disruption. Only 30 employees in 11 Energy Department research laboratories would be kept on the job.

Three regional power administrations that sell electricity to utilities and oversee power transmission to customers in the Southeast, Southwest and West would be kept operating by a total of 430 non-furloughed workers.