Furloughed Fed Workers Could Be Fired for Smartphone Use

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Because of the U.S. federal government shutdown, upwards of a million workers have been sent home. No pay, no work -- it seems like a fair tradeoff.

In fact, it's not just a tradeoff, but an ironclad requirement that could result in furloughed employees getting a pink slip for using a smartphone, according to Politico. Yup, make use of that government-supplied device and if you're a U.S. employee you could find yourself in the unemployment line -- and only because that is a state-run program, not a federal one, in which case the unemployment office would be closed.

According to a senior manager in the Department of Commerce who spoke with AOL Jobs, once the government shuts down, furloughed workers are forbidden from using government-issued smartphones, web portals, or email to communicate. Ignore the directive and it's a potentially firing offense. As if it wasn't enough that many federal workers "live paycheck to paycheck."

That affects hundreds of thousands of workers, according to the Washington Post's tally. (The bright side: IRS audits are on hiatus.)

You can see a graph of what percentage of workers are furloughed by agency at Slate. There are some agencies -- the Securities and Exchange Commission and Federal Reserve, for example -- that don't lay off employees because they are self-funded and so not subject to a lack of funds.

The high tech gremlin at work is actually the Anti-Deficiency Act of 1884, as reported by Slate.com. The legislation, as interpreted and updated in modern times, prevents the government from taking actions that could create obligations that don't have congressional funding.

You can't tweet from your federal agency Twitter account, you can't come into the office to catch up on some overdue paperwork, and technically speaking you're not even supposed to check your email. If you really strongly believe in your agency's mission and don't happen to have anything better to do today, you can't volunteer to work for free. You must stay home.

The problem is that the Anti-Deficiency Act also includes a prohibition on "accepting voluntary services for the United States, or employing personal services not authorized by law, except in cases of emergency involving the safety of human life or the protection of property," according to the General Accounting Office.

So, there is a two-pronged problem with employees using communications devices or technologies for work when furloughed. First, it would constitute volunteer work. Second, as Slate notes, the policy is an attempt to avoid some past problems.

Back in the 1970s there were a whole series of appropriations lapses driven by House/Senate disagreement about abortion. What happened then was basically what happens now with "essential" workers-people keep doing their jobs, it's just that they don't get paid. Then when Congress worked out its disagreement, it would also pony up the money for back pay. In a sense this made appropriations lapses "too easy," to the Justice Department changes <sic> the interpretation and now federal workers can't work.

There are still some workers, deemed exempt (in the past called essential), who do get to use their devices and even work. But they don't get paid, either. According to AP, active duty military personnel do get paid because of special legislation passed.

The question is, who will be allowed to call, email, or text the furloughed employees to say they can go back to work?
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