Federal

Shutdown Leaves Hollow Staffing at Ed. Dept.

By Ross Brenneman — October 11, 2013 4 min read
Steven Hicks, who works at the U.S. Department of Education, was furloughed under the government shutdown. While his partner is still working on Capitol Hill, Mr. Hicks says he's spent time cleaning their house and trying to keep busy.
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Until Oct. 1, Jenelle Leonard served as the director of school support and rural programs within the U.S. Department of Education.

Then the federal government shut down, leaving 4,000 of the department’s workers, including Ms. Leonard, without a paycheck.

What about Laura G. Johns, senior program advisor for the Office of Educational Technology?

And Samuel Lopez, education program specialist at the office of English Language Acquisition?

Yep, them too.

Most of the Education Department’s phone lines now end up giving callers the same message: “There’s a temporary shutdown of the U.S. government due to a lapse in appropriations. I will respond to your message as soon as possible after the temporary shutdown ends.”

Unfortunately, both for those seeking bureaucratic help and for the officials who normally offer it, the shutdown was still in effect as of press time this week, leaving everyone to wait on some deal on the still-unpassed fiscal year 2014 budget, the federal debt ceiling, or both, to get the government’s doors open again.

“Everyone I know just wants to go back to work,” Steven Hicks, a senior policy adviser for the office of early learning, said.

Mr. Hicks is one of the 94 percent of the Education Department’s staff in Washington and around the country who checks the news each day to see if work will be starting again, and he’s going a bit “stir crazy.”

Pocketbook Impact

There’s been plenty of talk about how a prolonged shutdown could soon create a full-blown crisis in the national economy.

But for government employees, it’s already here.

“The financial aspect has been tough on a lot of people. I know there are some people that live paycheck to paycheck,” said one employee at the Education Department, who was granted anonymity in order to speak freely. “A lot of people are worried about, ‘Will I make it through the month, what about mortgages, what about car payments?'—things along those lines.”

Furloughed, or “nonessential,” employees don’t have any latitude to work during a government shutdown. Under the Antideficiency Act of 1884, which governs protocol during a shutdown, employees may not take on any responsibilities which would merit compensation by the government.

When asked which employees weren’t considered “essential,” Education Department spokesman Cameron French literally laid down the law.

“Interviews cannot be conducted with employees at this time, the excepted employee list is not public, and access to the [department] building is not allowed for this purpose,” Mr. French said via email.

When the government says “shutdown,” it means it. Employees can’t take paid leave, can’t check their work email, or listen to work voice mail.

Closed Up Tight

The Office of Personnel Management advises the rest of the executive branch on employee conduct during a shutdown, although it delegates some guidelines, like those regarding media contact, to individual departments. (Mr. French clarified that the department cannot ask an employee to be an interviewed, but OPM rules don’t explicitly forbid media contact.)

Even though Mr. Hicks can’t do any formal work with the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge that his office oversees, he’s spent some of his free time reading over the proposals publicly available online.

“I haven’t been instructed not to go to the ED website,” Mr. Hicks said.

Indeed, for employees not exhausted from worrying about their family’s financial straits, there’s the looming problem of the work that has to be done once the shutdown ends. After all, someone has to process district Race to the Top applications, which were due Oct. 2, shutdown or otherwise. And then there’s the multitude of grant applications, civil rights complaints, waiver claims, research experiments, and all the other functions of the department.

“I think the big damage is the psychological damage,” the department source said. “Everybody there works their tails off, and really believe in what they’re doing, helping out the nation’s children. And just the fact that we’ve all been taken away from this thing we love doing, I think that’s probably had a real morale effect on everybody.”

Mr. Hicks echoes that sentiment.

“I think most of us didn’t think this was going to actually happen,” he said. “But of course we also didn’t think that sequestration would happen,” he added, referring to the across-the-board funding cuts that have slammed all federal agencies.

Frustrated Workers

Amid the shutdown, Congress has passed some piecemeal bills seeking to alleviate some pain for federal employees, such as ensuring pay to military members. On Oct. 5, the House approved legislation authorizing back pay for the “nonessential” federal workers, a measure President Barack Obama supports.

If anyone thinks that employees are getting back pay for nothing, they should probably ease their stance. The work is going to get done, the employees say, but now there’s less time to do it, and that time has been diminished because of the congressional quagmire.

“Everyone I know at the department—and I have colleagues at other agencies—just wants to get back to work,” Mr. Hicks said. “We work in this profession because we want to make a difference, and it’s very frustrating not being able to make a difference right now.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 16, 2013 edition of Education Week as Lights On, Nobody There as Ed. Dept. Weathers Shutdown

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