BY KENNETH KERO-MENTZ
Over 35 days of uncertainty, AFSA members reached out to us to share their anxieties, concerns and disappointments about the longest government shutdown in history. People were rightly upset, and many of us felt like pawns in a struggle between the branches of government. Regardless of whether we were working with pay, working without it, or forced to stay away from the work we love, Foreign Service officers and specialists were stressed.
For many of us, the shutdown caused real financial trouble, and even with careful planning, paying bills became a stretch. Some members had already tapped into their “rainy day fund” after being forced to leave Mission Russia last year. Others had to juggle funds to pay tuition expenses or mortgages due in January. Unemployment benefits were not available to many members serving overseas. Single parents and tandem couples were hit particularly hard with the delay of first one paycheck, and then two.
We heard stories of how the shutdown affected our members’ work. For instance, at the National Defense University and other war colleges, Department of State students were locked out of lectures and prohibited from participating in seminars during the shutdown. USAID war college students were designated “excepted,” so they could continue attending class. Students from State should have been “excepted” as well. There’s no reason why the U.S. government’s investment in a yearlong master’s degree program for its future senior leadership cadre should be torn apart midstream.
A mid-level officer at a small post in Africa reported that she was busier than ever, covering for her furloughed colleagues, planning events only to cancel later as the shutdown dragged on. As days turned into weeks, and then surpassed a month, morale plummeted. After all, as she said, who wants to work for an organization that consistently understaffs and overworks its team? She wonders if her enthusiasm for what is increasingly becoming a thankless job will ever rebound. Along the same lines, another FSO reported that he joined a newly created Facebook group dedicated to former and transitioning FSOs.
One member wonders if her enthusiasm for what is increasingly becoming a thankless job will ever rebound.
At one large mission in Asia, all State Department employees were required to report to work regardless of pay status. These people could not do any public-facing work and could not contact their counterparts at other posts or the department (since they were all furloughed), but were required to report to work in a non-pay status. It did not make sense. As many members noted, furlough decisions should be made in a central and transparent manner. Though none of us expected the shutdown to last so long, better contingency planning could have helped.
We’ve heard from many members asking if they can participate in class-action lawsuits being brought against the U.S. government for requiring employees to work without salary. There is no legal prohibition against Foreign Service officers joining class action lawsuits against the department or the government in general, but these lawsuits claim that the government violated the Fair Labor Standards Act. Most members of the Foreign Service are exempt from FLSA, although there are exceptions for some specialists and untenured generalists serving domestically.
Indeed, all employees working overseas are exempt from the provisions of FLSA. If you are not FLSA-exempt, and you wish to discuss your options, please contact AFSA’s Labor Management team to discuss your particular circumstances. We’re here to help.
The hardships went well beyond juggling work requirements and paying bills. One second-tour specialist was hospitalized and needed to medevac to the United States immediately. The shutdown delayed the processing of the medevac funding request; due to the shutdown and short staffing, it took 10 days to get the person on a plane.
As always, AFSA worked hard as the shutdown dragged on, doing what we do best: conducting quiet diplomacy within the department, on Capitol Hill and with our members. We heard your pain—we felt it, too. We kept the pressure up.
At this point, we don’t know if or when we’ll be shuttered again, but we remain hopeful, and we know the department’s leadership is doing all it can to keep us working, and paid. And that, after all, is what we need to keep bringing our best to the jobs we love.