WTOP Answer Desk: How a shutdown could affect you

WASHINGTON – How does the federal shutdown affect you? The WTOP Answer Desk is getting answers to your questions. Have a question? Submit it using this form.

How is the crisis hurting contractors differently than federal employees? What about back pay and unemployment benefits?

Some federal contractors believe they’re in the same boat as federal government workers: Furloughed without pay and wondering how they’ll get by. But in many cases federal contractors face particular difficulties, unlike those faced by Uncle Sam’s regular work force.

“As a contractor, in general, you don’t have the same benefits as employees do. Right now they’re talking about how federal employees can go get unemployment,” says Andrea Smith, a sign language interpreter who provides services to NASA and other federal agencies including the Smithsonian Institution.

She’s a sole proprietor and like many other contractors she cannot apply for unemployment benefits as federal workers can. And like other contractors, she has little hope of getting back pay.

“We’re just losing hours that we can’t bill, it’s just going to be gone forever,” she says.

Not all contractors can work while on furlough. Contract lawyers for the Justice Department are prohibited from practicing law during the shutdown.

Some contractors are using up vacation pay and some individuals are responsible for their own health insurance premiums which they say they’ll struggle to pay.

If the government shutdown continues into a third week, what about exempt workers who are on the job, will they work Monday – a federal holiday?

Monday, Columbus Day, is one of 10 federal holidays this year. Will it be the breather some need? Maybe not. Those exempt employees who are on the job, hoping to be paid at some later date, can be required to work on the holiday. According to the Office of Personnel Management’s 33-page “Guidance for Shutdown Furloughs,” it’s up to each agency to determine what work must be done and who must stay to do it.

Employees who fail to show up can be considered “absent without leave” and could face serious consequences.

Employees required to work will get holiday pay once Congress gets around to funding government operations.

Will furloughed federal workers who are caught in the government shutdown receive back pay? What about sequester back pay and what are the prospects for federal government contractors?

Some federal workers have lost pay since March because of automatic spending cuts known as sequestration. Some are furloughed at least one day a week.

Government labor union leaders have urged Congress to stop the sequester and reimburse federal workers, but no deal has been reached.

“Congress never promised anybody they were going to be paid for sequester, in fact that was the point of the sequester was the agencies didn’t have enough money,” says Francis Rose, anchor of “In Depth with Francis Rose” on sister station Federal News Radio.

Furloughs caused by the government shutdown are a different matter.

“The House has passed a bill 407 to 0 to support back pay for federal employees,” Rose says.

While President Barack Obama has indicated that he would sign into law such a bill, the Senate has yet to act. Senate Democratic and Republican leaders have not yet said whether they oppose such back pay by federal workers caught in the shutdown.

What about federal contractors?

There are contractors who work for big and small companies and there are sole proprietors who do contract work for Uncle Sam. The situations vary with the terms of the contract, but the predicament that contractors are in may not be unlike a general contractor hired to do work at someone’s house.

“If you hired a contractor to work on your house and you said ‘I want you to come and hang some dry wall but I don’t want you to start until Oct. 30th,’ you’re not going to pay that person to do that work between now and Oct. 30th,” Rose says.

Subcontractors may be harder hit than prime contractors.

“The big companies, in order to try to keep as many of their employees on the payroll as they can are saying to their subcontractors we’re going to figure out a way to do the work we need to do, and we’ll come back to you,” Rose says.

Sole proprietors who hold an individual contract for government work face a difficult situation.

“Individuals … must just be in a world of hurt because if you don’t work, you don’t get paid,” Rose says.

Can I collect unemployment during the shutdown if I am a furloughed federal worker?

With no end in sight for the shutdown, you may decide to sign up for unemployment in Maryland, Virginia or the District of Columbia. Remember, you apply to the state in which you work. (ie: If you work at the Pentagon, you apply for unemployment in Virginia.)

Maryland and D.C. want you to apply online. Virginia, on the other hand, will only accept paper applications. Follow the links below to find out more information.

Before you apply make sure you have your salary information and a W-2 handy. Normally, an out-of-work fed would have an SF-50, but in this case, many workers didn’t get one.

One important thing to remember, says John Mahoney of the law firm Tully Rinckey, “If subsequently the federal government returns them to work with back-pay for this unemployment period, they would have to pay back the unemployment compensation they received.”

All three states have provide special instructions and tips for furloughed feds:

Why are privately run landmarks being closed as a result of the shutdown?

The parking lots at George Washington’s estate were closed by the National Park Service because of a misunderstanding.

Mount Vernon spokesperson Melissa Wood says the Park Service didn’t realize the lots were not federal property. They’re owned by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, along with the estate.

Wood says most lots were reopened shortly after being closed Tuesday, but that one lot remained closed as the Park Service worked to determine who owned it.

Another site, the Claude Moore Colonial Farm in McLean, was closed because it sits on federal land, even though most of its operations are privately funded. The closing came as a surprise to employees and visitors.

“In previous budget dramas, the farm has always been exempted since the NPS provides no staff or resources to operate the farm,” according to a statement on the farm’s website. An employee says workers are allowed onto the property to maintain its operations, but visitors were removed on Tuesday and have not been allowed onto the property since.

If you’re an essential federal employee, could taking a sick day cause you to lose your “excepted” status and leave you furloughed for the duration of the shutdown?

Under the shutdown, any essential employee that cannot work gets put on furlough status. Several employees have told WTOP they were informed by their agencies that if they are furloughed, they would be unable to go back to work until the shutdown ends.

“Our understanding is that that is not the government’s policy,” says Jacque Simon, director of public policy for the American Federation of Government Employees. “If that is happening, that’s really a mismanagement on the part of the agency.”

“It isn’t what I would have expected the policy to be, and I would ask for clarification on that if I were an employee,” says Jeffrey Neal, senior vice president at ICF International and the former chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security. “It’s clearly not something that regulations are driving [agencies] to do.”

“It could be that some agencies don’t have the staff to actually process furloughs and returns from furloughs,” Neal adds.

The Office of Personnel Management’s Guidance for Shutdown Furloughs states: “Excepted employees must be either performing excepted activities or furloughed during any absence from work. The furlough must be documented by a furlough notice.”

It makes no mention of a furlough lasting the duration of the shutdown, and OPM did not respond to requests for more information.

Some agencies have offered clarification. The Navy has issued guidance saying those who take leave to address medical issues are only furloughed until they are able to return work.

Is it really necessary to close monuments memorials on the National Mall during the shutdown?

Attorney John Mahoney, a partner with Tully Rinckey, a Washington law firm focused on the federal employment sector, says the barricades on the mall send a clear message that the government is shut down.

“It is somewhat political, I mean obviously the mall is a very publicly visible area,” Mahoney says.

The park service says the monuments and memorials are closed because of staffing reductions. But Mahoney suggests some security is available.

“The park rangers are furloughed, currently, the park police are not,” Mahoney says.

Some congressional Republicans complain that while the high profile spots are closed, including the Lincoln, Jefferson and Martin Luther King Jr. memorials, other park property has remained open including Constitutional Gardens and the Japanese American Memorial.

Some of the closed monuments “are open spaces on an average given day,” Mahoney says, and “whether they actually need to be closed is a fair question.”

Has the government shutdown posed a risk to public health? What’s happening at the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health?

NIH is not enrolling new patients during the shutdown. In a normal week, NIH accepts about 200 patients, one-third of whom are battling cancer.

About 73 percent of NIH staff is furloughed. The personnel who are working are focusing most of their efforts on caring for patients already occupying the 240- bed hospital. Efforts are also underway to preserve current laboratory experiments.

The picture is no prettier at Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The vast majority of CDC’s activities have been shut down completely,” says spokeswoman Barbara Reynolds.

About 70 percent of CDC’s staff is not at work. Reynolds says efforts to identify public health threats have been weakened. And at the outset of the flu season, work has been suspended.

“All of our work on the annual season influenza program has pretty much come to a halt,” Reynolds says.

The Food and Drug Administration is continuing meat inspections, but other food inspections have been halted.

Will federal retirees get their checks on time? And will the government continue paying health insurance premiums during the shutdown?

Federal government union officials offer assurances that federal retirees who’ve been getting pension checks will continue to get them on time. But for those recently retired, with paperwork in the process, officials say there could be delays.

The government is also expected to continue to pay employees health insurance and long term care insurance premiums.

As for why members of Congress are still drawing a paycheck, it’s because of the Constitution’s 27th Amendment. The Amendment permits lawmakers to make changes in congressional pay only for future congresses. Some lawmakers are donating their pay to charity during the shutdown.

Are the military commissaries affected?

Commissaries, special grocery stores where military families can by goods tax- free, are closed during the shutdown.

Is WIC still operating despite the government shutdown?

The Women, Infant and Children nutritional assistance program is fully funded by the federal government. But the WIC program has not been disrupted in Maryland or Virginia.

That could change however depending on the duration of the shutdown.

WIC provides baby formula and foods to supplement the diets of low-income pregnant women, moms and children up to age 5.

Maryland Health Department Deputy Secretary of Operations Thomas Kim says reserve funds can keep WIC running.

“It will be able to operate on reserves for the next several days to perhaps two weeks,” he says.

Same story in Virginia, where funding that includes carryover dollars and Medicaid reimbursement are expected to keep the program going through at least Nov. 1.

Dr. Cynthia Romero, state health commissioner for Virginia, says efforts have been underway to determine if there is state funding that could keep WIC running if the federal dispute is not promptly resolved.

The “Virginia Department of Health is committed to continue these food services as long as we can,” Romero says.

In Maryland, Deputy Secretary Kim says officials are also exploring whether state funding could be used to continue running the program.

The D.C. Department of Health did not respond to a request to comment Tuesday.

Is it safe to fly?

Although air traffic controllers and Transportation Security Administration screeners remain on the job, one critical component of aviation safety is not fully staffed.

“Aviation safety inspectors are not on duty,” says Mike Perrone, president of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, the union representing nearly 3,000 Federal Aviation Administration inspectors.

“In-flight cockpit inspections have been suspended,” Peronne says.

The union says ramp inspections are also not being conducted.

The FAA is using managers nationwide to pick up some of the slack created by the absence of rank-and-file inspectors.

Perrone warns that safety margins could deteriorate if the government shutdown endures.

“Things are safe to fly. Will it be in the future, depends on how long it goes,” Perrone says.

Is the Holocaust Museum open? What about other museums?

The Holocaust Museum is closed.

All of the Smithsonian museums on the National Mall are closed.

Museums and attractions that are open include the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Newseum, the International Spy Museum, National Geographic Museum, National Building Museum, The Phillips Collection, The Crime Museum and others.

Skyline Drive is a popular drive this time of year. Has the government shutdown closed the region’s premier leaf-peeping ride? And what about other parkways in our area including Rock Creek Parkway?

Heavy traffic is not uncommon this time of year on the 105-mile mountaintop highway Skyline Drive in Virginia. But the picturesque roadway through Shenandoah National Park is closed. The park’s hiking trails, campgrounds and lodgings also are closed.

All national parks are closed until further notice. However, if trails can be accessed in parks, in the absence of locked gates, the National Park Service says it won’t chase people away.

However, the Blue Ridge Parkway, which has vistas comparable to Skyline Drive will remain open.

As for the national parkways in the D.C. area, Rock Creek Parkway will remain open through the shutdown but Beach Drive is closed north of Broad Branch.

George Washington Parkway, Suitland Parkway and Clara Barton Parkway will all stay open despite the government shutdown.

Rush hour lane reversals and restrictions will continue along Rock Creek Parkway.

To safeguard the nation’s security, Congress and the White House made special provisions Monday night ensuring continuing defense operations. So why have civilian Department of Defense personnel been sent home Tuesday?

Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed into law Monday night the last- minute Pay America Act. In a brief address to the nation’s military and civilian defense employees, Obama said, “Ongoing military operations, like our efforts in Afghanistan, will continue.”

Defense Secretary Hagel, visiting South Korea, said Tuesday morning, the last- minute law will ensure military personnel and civilian defense workers will continue to receive paychecks.

But Hagel added that Pentagon lawyers are examining the Pay America Act. In the meantime, he said that defense department workers designated non-exempt would be sent home Tuesday. As lawyers examine the law, the status of non-exempt employees could change and civilian workers put on leave could be called back to the work in the days ahead, if the government shutdown continues.

Will federal employees get a paycheck at mid-month for work they did before the shutdown? How about those on the job Tuesday, will they be paid?

Government employee union officials say they expect paychecks to go out, on time, October 15, for hours worked through Sept. 30.

But it’s a different story for employees designated exempt who are required to be on the job Tuesday. Without a budget bill, there’s no money to pay them. However, there is a presumption among workers and union officials that they will be paid at some later date.

Federal workers who are on the job are being told they may not take leave or sick time, if they do those days will be charged as unpaid furlough days.

Also, union officials say employees are being told that may not take a paid vacation day in place of a furlough day.

What government programs are exempt from the shutdown?

Millions of Americans depend on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits.

“Those programs would be deemed exempt, which means they won’t be affected by the shutdown,” says Francis Rose, host of “In Depth” on WTOP’s sister station Federal News Radio.

Medicare and Medicaid patients would be able to continue to visit doctors and Social Security checks would be mailed to beneficiaries.

Will I get my mail?

Americans can depend on regular mail delivery.

“Mail won’t be impacted by this at all,” Rose says. The Postal Service operates on the income it takes in from the sale of stamps and other mail services. It doesn’t depend on funding appropriated by Congress.

How will services for veterans be impacted?

Most veterans services would continue.

“Medical centers will stay open. Vets will be able to continue to get treatment. All the hotlines will continue to be available,” Rose says.

What if I have plans to travel?

If passengers are holding airline tickets they’ll still be able to fly in the event of a government shutdown.

“The TSA screeners and the FAA air traffic controllers will still be on duty,” assures Rose. But if you need a passport, there could be delays.

“If any are done, they’ll take a lot longer than they normally would,” Rose says of passport applications.

How are loans affected by the shutdown?

Federal Housing Administration loans and student loans could be slowed. You can continue to apply for federally backed loans, but approvals could be delayed because federal employees who would review them could be furloughed.

What about food safety?

The U.S. counts on the USDA to inspect meat and food processing plants to keep our food safe, and those safety inspections will continue.

“Fifty-five percent to 65 percent of the federal government will stay on the job through a federal shutdown and food safety inspectors are exactly the kind of people that fit right into that exempt category who won’t be subject to furlough,” Rose says.

What about food assistance and school lunch programs?

Some food aid programs, such as WIC — food assistance for women, infants and children — could come to a halt if money must be drawn from the new year’s 2014 budget.

“If the money comes from that, that money is not going to be available, if Congress doesn’t come up with a deal,” Rose says.

Other food assistance programs would have money to operate because their funding is budgeted a month or more in advance. The school breakfast and lunch programs would continue to serve meals to low-income children.

Will the IRS continue to audit?

There could be slowdowns in service at the Internal Revenue Service while audits are expected to be suspended. But if you have a tax bill due, it’s best to pay it.

What about parking enforcement in D.C.?

Don’t disregard meters and parking signs in the city. The D.C. Department of Public Works says operations are scheduled to operate as normal.

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Dick Uliano, John Aaron and Mike Murillo contributed to this report. Follow @WTOP on Twitter.

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