Kevin Kirby will soon be back at his desk at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but after a 16-day furlough because of the federal government shutdown, the enterprise data architect isn’t sure when he’ll get back pay, and he expects a boatload of work.
“The part that is so frustrating is the loss in project momentum,” said Kirby, noting that the staff on his team is already stretched. “Everyone is juggling twice the project workload due to freezes in hiring. You have to lose [the equivalent of] three full-time staff before you can hire one. So, the impact on the remaining workforce has been significant.”
It may fall to HR managers to ease the transition back to work now that Congress has struck a deal allowing the federal government to start spending money again. They’ll have to ensure that furloughed workers who received unemployment checks, and will eventually get back pay, know they must return the former; they may have to handle resentment and frustration; and they may want to consider activities that welcome back workers and that nurture a sense of team spirit.
“Companies should keep in mind that a lot of furloughed workers were living paycheck to paycheck, so they were suffering,” said Robert Sheridan, an associate in the employment, labor and benefits practice at the law firm Mintz Levin. “They should be really sensitive when employees are returning. They need to manage the message and say in no uncertain terms that the reason [workers] were furloughed was because of circumstances out of their hands. The government ceased to function properly.”
It wasn’t just federal agencies that had to send workers home; private companies also had to put employees on leave, because all or most of their revenue comes from government contracts. Sheridan predicts that many of these companies won’t provide back pay—something many expect Congress to offer federal workers.
“Many people forget that the government shutdown affected nongovernment employees,” noted Jennette Pokorny, vice president of marketing and communication at EverNext HR, which provides HR services to small businesses. “You have companies that specialize in government contracts—transportation, construction—and this affected a huge amount of their workforce.”
Softening the Blow
When tackling work backlogs because of the federal shutdown, employers should consider paying hourly workers overtime, Sheridan said. Salaried employees like Kirby probably won’t be as fortunate, he said, but managers should consider “esprit de corps” events to soften the blow.
“There are measures [employers] can take, such as a pizza day on Friday or a jeans day. Given that it’s Halloween, maybe a dress-up day. The key to any sort of goodwill measure is to make sure it’s fairly cheap, because you don’t want to leave the impression that the company had a pile of cash it was sitting on while these employees were out living hand-to-mouth.”
Agencies and companies that worked hard to accommodate furloughed employees—advising them on temporary hiring agencies, financial consultants and unemployment compensation—may suffer less post-shutdown resentment than those that didn’t.
Asked if the EPA offered any such resources upon furloughing workers, Kirby said the agency didn’t.
By contrast, Jason Golden, a computer systems operator for the California Air National Guard who was furloughed from Oct. 1 to Oct. 6, said his superiors sent e-mails advising him and his colleagues on how to collect unemployment.
“There was a genuine concern from the higher-ups, and it was their intent to help us in any way they could, despite the circumstances,” Golden said.
Sheridan suggested that managers may need to remind furloughed workers that if they received unemployment checks and later get back pay, many states require them to repay the unemployment benefits.
Although it would be a gesture of good will for private companies that can afford it to offer furloughed workers back pay, Sheridan expects many won’t.
“Nothing softens the blow of economic hardship better than payment for some of this time these employees were furloughed,” he said. “But nothing requires private companies to give back pay. My sense is, a lot of them aren’t going to provide it.”
As for federal employees, the deal that Congress voted on, on Oct. 16 provides them with back pay. Even so, as Kirby points out, it remains uncertain how long it may be before the checks are on their way to families—like his—that had to restructure their budgets because of the recent furloughing and because of the summer 2013 sequestration that also led to federal-employee furloughs.
“We've all read that Congress has made some assurances for federal workers being compensated for these furloughed days,” said Kirby, who lives in Alexandria, Va. “What remains to be seen are the details and projected timelines of when. What makes this tough is that we've already been required to take about two weeks’ furlough due to sequestration. This makes the economic impact very real in terms of readjusting a family's budget.”
Potential for Liability
A final consideration, Sheridan said, is the potential liability companies may suffer if they furloughed workers in a manner that wasn’t evenhanded. Private companies typically had more flexibility than government agencies when deciding which workers stayed home, “and if they were doing things correctly, the people furloughed should have been those whose jobs were truly 100 percent dependent on government money or contracts.
“But private companies needed to make sure those decisions were based on legitimate business reasons and done in a nondiscriminatory manner,” he continued. “There are a lot of plaintiff’s law firms out there, and if they can find a pattern of discriminatory furloughing, they’re going to jump on that.”
Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.