Monday, January 22, 2018

What Happens in an Embassy When the Government Shuts Down?

Unless you live under a rock, you've probably heard that the U.S. government shut down this weekend. I saw a lot of chatter about the shutdown and its effects back home, but very little about what effect it's having abroad. So what actually happens in a U.S. Embassy overseas when the government shuts down? Well, I have a very "State Department" answer to that question: it depends!

It depends on a lot of factors: the laws of the host country government, the roles of specific employees at Embassies, the diverse funding mechanisms for different offices, and what events or programs are planned. Here, many American employees (including myself) are being furloughed, just like many of our counterparts stateside.

What does it mean to be furloughed? Well, it's basically unpaid leave* you have to take whether you want to or not. If you had regular, paid annual leave scheduled, then that leave is cancelled.

This is one of the areas where host country government laws can come in for an Embassy. In Kenya, for example, you can't legally furlough Kenyan employees the way you can furlough Americans. Therefore, our Kenyan colleagues (who make up the majority of Embassy Nairobi's workforce) will be continuing to work their regular hours throughout the shutdown.

Because I'm furloughed and because the U.S. government is technically not allowed to accept unpaid work from its employees, I'm not supposed to come into work** or check my work emails (or even have my work phone on until the shutdown is resolved). My office can't even post on the Embassy's social media accounts until we're funded again.

Now, not everyone at Embassy Nairobi will be doing the same. Some positions (such as Consular jobs) are not dependent on Congressional appropriations and can continue to operate while they fund themselves. Other jobs are considered "essential" and excepted from furloughs, most often because of national security. It seems (admittedly from my entry-level perspective) that these excepted jobs are quite strictly defined and that most jobs are considered "nonessential" for furlough purposes.

Most interestingly, even when we have essential American employees and all of our local staff in the office, we're limited as to what work can be done. We can't hold external meetings or even arrange future meetings. Grants we've already disbursed can continue to operate as long as those operations are carried out by the grantee - not us. We can't spend any additional money. As a result, there are quite a few calls and emails we make to our contacts to cancel meetings, explain the delay on action items, and share that we won't be in touch until we hear on the news that we can get back to work. (Yes, we find out the shutdown is over at the same time as everyone else - by watching the news.)

So although I began this post with the notoriously ambiguous "it depends", I hope I've shed a little light on what happens in a U.S. Embassy during a government shutdown. Maybe I even helped a few people think of their representatives overseas at this time - after all, I know I didn't when I was in the DC area for the last federal shutdown in 2013. Now, if only we could bring some of those deals for furloughed federal government employees in DC to Kenya...

*Although we're not paid during the furlough period, Congress has usually chosen to back-pay most federal employees for lost wages following the past few most recent shutdowns. Still, it's not a guarantee.

**There is a bizarre quirk: I have to come into work on morning of the first workday of the shutdown, so I can be formally told that I am not an "essential" employee and I need to go home.

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