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Originally published April 5, 2011 at 9:15 PM | Page modified April 8, 2011 at 9:54 AM

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Corrected version

How a shutdown would affect you

Even if the federal government shuts down this weekend, mail delivery will continue, food stamps will be issued, veterans hospitals won't kick out patients and border agents will stay on duty to screen travelers. But prepare for possible delays if you're applying for a passport or firearms-dealer license, filing for an income-tax refund or just trying to get an answer about Social Security benefits.

Seattle Times Washington bureau

WASHINGTON — Even if the federal government shuts down this weekend, mail delivery will continue, food stamps will be issued, veterans hospitals won't evict patients and border agents will stay on duty to screen travelers.

But forget about visiting Olympic National Park. And prepare for possible delays if you're applying for a passport or firearms-dealer license, filing for an income-tax refund or just trying to get an answer about Social Security benefits.

Despite a budget impasse that has pushed the federal government to within 72 hours of running out of operating funds for the first time in 15 years, many details about the "orderly shutdown" of federal services remain unclear.

But this much is certain: A sizable chunk of the 50,000 federal workers in Washington state whose duties are deemed nonessential would be idled.

The Obama administration this week began to prepare for a shutdown in earnest, instructing agencies to start disclosing contingency plans with key employees. The move was triggered by a looming midnight Friday expiration of the latest stopgap spending bill that has funded the government while congressional Democrats and Republicans bicker over budget cuts for the current — and dwindling — fiscal year.

The standoff has locked the nation's 2.8 million federal workers into weeks of uncertainty. During the most recent government shutdowns, some 800,000 employees were furloughed for five days in late 1995 and 284,000 had to stay home for 21 days in early 1996.

Congress subsequently approved back pay for those workers. But, with conservative Republicans insistent on deep spending cuts this time around, retroactive pay is no sure thing.

The Office of Management and Budget, in charge of overseeing the shutdown, has issued only broad guidelines about which workers must be retained. They include military and law-enforcement personnel, direct health-care providers and others needed "to protect life and property."

As a result, prison guards, air traffic controllers and food inspectors, for instance, can count on working. But a climate researcher with the National Weather Service? Probably not. And most federal museums and other attractions likely would turn away visitors. During the last shutdown, the closures of 368 National Park Services sites cost an estimated 7 million admissions, according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service.

Federal courts remained open during the previous shutdowns.

Members of Congress, the president, presidential appointees and certain legislative-branch employees are not subject to furloughs.

Also exempt: some employees who work in programs funded by mandatory, not annual, appropriations, such as Medicare and Social Security. But even there, murkiness exists.

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During the fiscal 1996 shutdown, the Social Security Administration sent home all but 4,780 employees needed to send out monthly checks.

But the agency reconsidered as the shutdown dragged on. For one thing, the agency lacked enough workers to issue cards to new beneficiaries or to process address changes for current ones. The agency then notified the OMB that it needed 49,715 additional workers.

For employees not considered essential (the designation triggered not a little anguish in some people), they would be deemed laid off and eligible for unemployment benefits.

The maximum weekly check in Washington state is $570, but workers would have to endure a shutdown for one week before collecting.

Kyung Song: 202-662-7455 or ksong@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published April 5, 2011, was corrected April 7, 2011. A previous version of this story incorrectly said a federal government shutdown could slow processing of gun permits. The federal government issues firearms licenses to dealers. Permits to carry concealed weapons are issued by other jurisdictions.

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