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Furlough, Can You Go

For the second time in five years, Susan and I have been furloughed.

What that means is, until a budget is passed by congress, all non-essential federal employees — that’s us — are prohibited from working and will not get paid until the furlough is over. We can’t even volunteer to work for free.

The first question everybody asks is, “yeah, but don’t you get back pay?” The answer is, “probably.” It’s not guaranteed, but historically, I don’t think it’s never not happened. That being said, our back pay will arrive on the first full paycheck following the furlough. The 2013 furlough lasted 26 days, which meant that our family went without a paycheck for six weeks.

The second question everybody asks is, “why should federal employees get paid for not working?” That’s a tough question to answer, and maybe we shouldn’t. All I can tell you is, nobody who gets furloughed enjoys it, or has anything to do with it. All of us wish we were working.

The third question people frequently ask me is, “who is essential and who is non-essential?” It’s different, per agency. Within the FAA, Air Traffic Controllers are essential (the technical term is excepted). The people who fix their computers are non-excepted. Employees who inspect things and process things tend to be non-excepted, so expect anything involving paperwork to grind to a halt. Those who deal directly with safety tend to be excepted. Note that even though excepted employees have to report to work, they don’t get paid until after the furlough ends either — double bummer for them.

For my family, a furlough means instant stress and instability. Yes, we have enough money in the bank to eat tomorrow, and many tomorrows after that. Things start to get scary when the furlough lasts an entire pay period, and suddenly it’s time to make house, car, and insurance payments with no money coming in.

But if you’re not a federal employee, what does a furlough mean to you?

At the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City, where I work, there are 7,500 employees. That’s 7,500 people who most likely just cut back on their spending drastically. Small local businesses may feel that squeeze as well as kids are pulled out of daycare and people stop eating at local restaurant.

In the past, furloughs have led to the closure of national parks, and interruptions in government services (programs like WIC, the EPA, and FDA were severely crippled during the last furlough). National museums and zoos will close.

One other way the furlough affects you is that the furlough costs taxpayers approximately six billion dollars a week. Some of that money comes out of the budget and some of that gets added to the country’s debt. Either way, it’s a terrible waste.

I don’t expect this furlough to last as long as the last one, but you never know. I suspect by Monday we’ll have a better idea of just how tight we’ll have to cinch our belts this time.

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