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The 2018 Federal Shutdown for FSCEs

The 2018 U.S. government shutdown began at midnight EST on January 20, 2018 because a bill failed to pass the Senate 50–49 on January 19, 2018. That set off a chain of furlough-related questions about who is working and how are they getting paid? This unofficial post examines the specific case for the Foreign Service Construction Engineers (FSCEs) working in the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO).

The Federal government is quite vast, and the rules on employment are substantial and vary significantly between organizations. It's best to seek out information directly from the Department or Agency of interest, but when it comes down to special cases, that information is often much harder to come by. Since my career field has only 80 members, I'm sure there are questions from aspiring future employees that will probably never be answered officially so I'll give you a run-down from my perspective.

For starters, the operating status of the government can almost always be found at www.OPM.gov. It provides something similar to the image above. Following the direction to refer to the home agency, Foreign Service Construction Engineers refer to the State Department guidance on operations during a lapse in appropriations (this link applies to the Jan 2018 lapse). Before going any further into the policy, it's important to understand what the different terms mean.

  • Appropriations: Congress annually considers several appropriations measures, which provide discretionary funding for numerous activities—such as national defense, education, and homeland security—as well as general government operations. Appropriations acts are characteristically annual and generally provide funding authority that expires at the end of the federal fiscal year, September 30. In the case of the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations in the State Department, activities abroad are paid from no-year appropriations.
  • No-Year Appropriations: An appropriation that is available for obligation for an indefinite period of time. A no-year appropriation is usually identified by appropriation language such as “to remain available until expended” or “without fiscal year limitation.” As such, it is not constrained by when an appropriations bill is passed because the money never really expires. However, it is still dependent on having funds available for payment. It's like having a bottle of milk that will never expire, but the bottle doesn't magically refill itself once emptied. While only appropriations can "put milk into the bottle", we're lucky in that "OBO milk" doesn't go bad.
  • Furlough: The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has prepared human resources guidance for agencies and employees in the event of furloughs. There are two types of furloughs:
    • An administrative furlough is a planned event by an agency which is designed to absorb reductions necessitated by downsizing, reduced funding, lack of work, or any budget situation other than a lapse in appropriations. Furloughs that would potentially result from sequestration would generally be considered administrative furloughs. 
    • A shutdown furlough (also called an emergency furlough) occurs when there is a lapse in appropriations, and can occur at the beginning of a fiscal year, if no funds have been appropriated for that year, or upon expiration of a continuing resolution, if a new continuing resolution or appropriations law is not passed. In a shutdown furlough, an affected agency would have to shut down any activities funded by annual appropriations that are not excepted by law. Typically, an agency will have very little to no lead time to plan and implement a shutdown furlough.

  • Excepted Vs. Non-Excepted Functions: “Excepted" functions that may be continued in an absence of appropriations include those necessary for emergencies involving "the safety of human life or the protection of property," and those necessary for activities essential to national security, including the conduct of foreign affairs essential to national security. Employees performing "excepted" functions will continue to report to work and perform their duties. There are also other terms like "Essential", "Non-essential", and "Emergency Essential" that refer to the personnel performing those "excepted" functions. OBO, by and large, is considered to be engaged in excepted functions. 

Effect of the 2018 Federal Shutdown on FSCEs
FSCEs are often the contracting officer representatives for construction projects directly supporting OBO’s mission to provide safe, secure and functional facilities that represent the U.S. government to the host nation and support our staff in the achievement of U.S. foreign policy objectives. As such, we're essential to ensuring the contractor complies with the contract and delivers a product that meets specifications, and our activities fall into one of the excepted functions that continue during a shutdown.

Since OBO activities abroad (e.g., rents, maintenance and repair, fire/safety and capital projects) are paid from the no-year OBO appropriation, these activities can be obligated and paid if the post has sufficient funds in its OBO allotment. Salaries for facility managers and OBO direct-hire project staff at post are funded domestically from the no-year OBO appropriation; therefore, those personnel will continue to report to work and perform their duties. Salaries for locally-hired OBO project staff are funded from post-held OBO allotments and can therefore be obligated and paid as long as post has sufficient funds in its allotment (Source: Diplopundit.net)

So, I'll be going to work during the shutdown and when funding is available, I'll get paid. Where it will get interesting is if OBO's no-year funds get depleted. I'll have another post about that if it happens (but I doubt it will come to pass).

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