"Everything just stops," employees say of the devastating impacts of near shutdowns.
Last week, U.S. Forest Service firefighters in Michigan, like others around the country, ceased clearing out “fuel” such as trees and debris in heavily forested locations, work that is critical to preventing the spread of wildfires. Bulldozers and other equipment that require commercial licenses to operate were driven from the woods into storage locations.
In the event of a government shutdown, the agency did not want to leave its expensive machines unoperated and exposed to unexpected conditions and the public.
The government did not shut down, with Congress late Saturday passing a 45-day stopgap funding bill just hours before agencies would have been forced to close. Still, Andy Vanderheuel, a Forest Service battalion chief and a National Federal of Federal Employees official who represents his colleagues in Michigan, said his team had to waste full days bringing all the equipment in last week and then today moving it back into the wooded area. Management was still finalizing the last details of the agency’s shutdown plan, but Vanderheuel was expecting to have to report to work during a lapse—so long as it was not raining.
When he was at work, if a shutdown had occurred, Vanderheuel and his team would have to “sit there” and wait for a fire, as their preemptive fuel removal work would not have been considered necessary to protect life and property.
Preparations like those at the Forest Service took place at agencies across government in the last week and beyond, as federal employees collectively spent tens of thousands of hours in meetings and drafting documents to spell out shutdown contingency plans. In some cases that meant moving heavy equipment, while in others it required finding leftover funds at the 11th hour to keep agencies afloat even after a funding lapse occurred (the Smithsonian Institution, U.S. Agency for International Development and, likely, at least parts of the State Department were expected to be among the agencies that continued normal operations under a shutdown using prior-year funds). In all cases, agencies dropped normal activities to cement their procedures and notify their employees.
Shannon Ellis, a customer service representative at the Internal Revenue Service in Kansas City, said that in the runup to the shutdown “everything comes to a halt.”
“The entire work process shifts gears,” Ellis said, noting managers, after receiving directives from headquarters, determine exactly what work is “critical to the nation” and must continue during a funding lapse and identify which employees are qualified to carry out those duties. “Everything just stops and all focus turns to getting that information out quick enough to the employees.”
Shutdown planning started at the top levels of the White House and the Office of Management and Budget formally kicked things off with a planning call with agency leaders on Sept. 22. OMB worked with agencies to review and finalize their shutdown contingency plans that detailed exactly which work would continue and how many employees would have to continue reporting to complete it.
Late last week, agencies began notifying employees that a shutdown appeared likely and readying them for next steps. Official furlough notices were not expected to go out until after a funding lapse occurred, though informal conversations had already taken place to inform employees of their potential shutdown status. About 800,000 federal employees were set to be sent home.
Time we don’t have
The planning that goes into a potential shutdown is exhaustive, with meetings across government ranging from big-picture decisions over what work gets done to the minutiae of how to process time and attendance cards. Jessica LaPointe, a Social Security Administration employee who represents her colleagues at the agency through the American Federation of Government Employees, estimated that SSA staff spent 21,000 work hours in meetings preparing for the shutdown. Every SSA office in the country met with staff to go over what a shutdown would mean for employees—the vast majority of whom were slated to continue working through a funding lapse—and details such as how to deal with absences.
Those hours, LaPointe said, represented time employees were not spending processing and adjudicating claims, answering phones and ensuring overpayments do not occur. The process causes “crippling stress” for employees who worry about the consequences of working without pay and adds to already growing backlogs. It has lasting impacts on morale, as employees are either told they will have to work without immediate pay or that their roles are not sufficiently critical to do so.
Shutdown preparations “waste time and waste money, and that is time we don’t have,” LaPointe said. “It’s life or death when we can’t get to our workloads.”
IRS employees faced a particularly tumultuous build-up to the near-shutdown, as an early contingency plan allowed the entire agency to continue working due to Inflation Reduction Act funds. On Friday, just one day before a potential shutdown, it formally shifted gears, releasing a new plan that would have sent home about two-thirds of its 90,000 employees.
That led to significant miscommunication, Ellis said, as supervisors at local offices tried to sort through who was needed to carry out the work deemed critical. Managers then began calling employees late Friday to informally notify them of their furlough status, in some cases after the worker had already left for the day, while stressing they should “watch the news” to learn whether a shutdown had occurred and the agency’s plan would be operationalized. Due to a contract with its union, IRS excepts employees with the least tenure who have the requisite skills to carry out work that must continue during a shutdown.
All of that frantic planning—including for individual employees, some of whom had to cancel vacations or surgeries to work during a shutdown while others made preparations with financial institutions to seek hardship deferrals on payments they cannot make without paychecks—comes with an opportunity cost.
“In my office, it was 100% everybody off of cases,” Ellis said.
Doreen Greenwald, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, at which Ellis is a local president, said agencies are distracted from their missions in the runup to a shutdown.
“Federal employees on the frontlines see first-hand how much effort it takes for an agency to prepare for a government shutdown,” Greenwald said. “Far from just shutting off the lights and walking out, federal employees at every level spend considerable hours in the preceding days taking active steps to protect their work product, move deadlines, anticipate problems that might arise during a shutdown and make accommodations, and notify those who might be impacted.”
Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, said federal leaders have also told him shutdown preparation becomes “a 100% focus of their time.” Federal managers across government have to drop their "vital work for the public'' to prepare to shut things down, Stier said, while rank-and-file employees are dealing with a "distraction of the largest order" in determining their status and facing the risk of not getting paid on time.
“It’s all hands on deck. It really is an emergency triage,” Stier said, adding plans that agencies have on the shelf do not answer specific questions of what specific projects will continue or how decisions get communicated to employees and contractors. The work adds up to “thousands and thousands of hours for thousands and thousands of people—it becomes the thing they focus on.”
President Biden on Sunday expressed his appreciation that employees at agencies such as the Defense Department, SSA and Transportation Security Administration were all able to stay on the jobs without the threat of delayed paychecks. He lamented, however, the costs the deadline gamesmanship had already exacted.
“The truth is we shouldn’t be here in the first place,” Biden said. “We shouldn’t have gotten here in the first place. It’s time to end governing by crisis and keep your word when you give it in the Congress.”
Biden was referring to the 2023 Fiscal Responsibility Act, a law Congress passed after tense negotiations between the White House and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., to raise the debt limit and set spending caps for fiscal 2024 and 2025. House Republicans have since reneged on that deal, passing appropriations measures well below agreed-upon levels. Biden implored those lawmakers to stick to their agreement, noting there is “no excuse for another crisis.”
“Quite frankly, I’m sick and tired,” Biden said. “I’m sick and tired of the brinkmanship, and so are the American people.”
Advocates warned that shutdown threats could increase turnover at federal agencies and discourage potential applicants from seeking careers in public service.
“It is so incredibly wasteful for our federal government to have to periodically stop everything and board up the shop like a hurricane is coming,” said Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees. “Any time workers think they might have to go weeks without getting paid it makes them question the security of that job in sustaining themselves and their families.”
While Congress averted a shutdown, it did so only for six weeks. Lawmakers must now figure out how to set line-by-line funding for every federal office, a difficult prospect given House Republicans’ current position. That could leave agencies once again on the hook for potential shutdown planning.
Ellis said at IRS, for example, a pre-Thanksgiving shutdown would butt up against different tax deadlines that would render the just-released shutdown plan no longer entirely operational. That leaves agencies looking down the barrel of another shutdown—and going through a renewed process of determining shutdown procedures—while in what Stier calls the “purgatory” of a stopgap continuing resolution. Under CRs, agencies generally cannot start new projects, end existing ones or otherwise engage in long-term planning and budgeting.
“It’s better than shutting it down,” Stier said, “but instead of driving off a cliff, you smash into a tree. Both are bad.”