Federal Employees: What to Do in a Shutdown

Because the rules are unclear for how to behave in a shutdown, and the offices who would clarify them may also be closed, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility has prepared this Survival Guide in concert with retired federal civil servants and publicly available official guidance to help public employees stay on the right side of the law.


Read the OPM Guidelines

Become familiar with the rules and exercise your own caution and common sense.  The Office of Personnel Management has a helpful FAQ guide here. It answers specific questions about issues like FMLA leave, benefits, leave accrual and use, detail assignments, and more.

Be Wary of Third-Party Offers

Be wary of guidance offered by third-parties who may have an interest one way or another in how they are portraying the shutdown. This shutdown has seen a growing trend of federal employees turning to sites like GoFundMe, which may violate ethics rules against soliciting gifts. Many federal employees will not have the resources to consult an attorney, so don’t take any drastic actions based on media reports about what others are doing or informal, uncritical advice.

Document Everything

If you have been asked to keep working, keep track of everything you have been asked to work on and why during the shutdown. Personal notes (NOT on your government computer!) of what you are being asked or directed to do by supervisors and departmental or agency leadership will be immensely helpful in the event there is an Inspector General, GAO, or congressional inquiryinto the agency’s decision to have staff work on projects that don’t meet the general definition of essential.

Know Your Rights

If you feel that you have been asked to do anything inconsistent with the Act or other laws, or have been retaliated against, you may want to consult with a federal employee union, obtain outside legal counsel, or contact a group which represents public employees like PEER.

Report Wrongdoing

You can report wrongdoing to the resources normally available, including your Inspector General and the Office of Special Counsel. Bear in mind that those offices face many of the same de-funding challenges and may not be able to help until well after the shutdown is over.

Normal Rules Apply

Follow the normal rules. Federal ethics restrictions still apply under the shutdown. Most agencies have issued shutdown guidancefor the duration of the shutdown which was consulted in preparing this guide.

Clear the Way for Supplementary Employment

Before seeking outside employment, make sure it does not run afoul of the ethics rules. Many agencies with large numbers of unpaid employees have specifically designated ethics employees to remain at their posts to help their furloughed coworkers avoid running afoul of ethics rules. Some have issued guidance which identifies certain kinds of work that can be done without seeking ethics approval. If you are uncertain, attempt to seek prior approval, check your agency general counsel’s office website, or search for official agency statements during the shutdown using the phrase “Outside Activity.”

File for Unemployment Where Allowed

For seeking unemployment insurance benefits, some agencies have provided that a furloughed employee may seek employment without advanced authorization and can provide to the unemployment office any necessary evidence that they are seeking employment. For DC-area furloughed employees, however, Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia have agreed that non-excepted employees who are filing for unemployment are not subject to the requirement to look for work in order to qualify for unemployment insurance benefits.

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