Social Security workers see red Shutdown prompts anger over inconsistent policy, lost vacation, future pay

December 23, 1995|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Suzanne Glenn was home sick with pneumonia Monday when the phone rang. Report to work by 1 p.m. or lose your pay, the Social Security clerk-typist in Kansas City, Mo., was told.

"I came in and I worked for 15 minutes," Ms. Glenn said yesterday. "Then I threw up and left."

Her colleague, Jane Stiles, on maternity leave with a newborn daughter, got a similar call. So she reported to work Monday afternoon, bringing 7-week-old Samantha with her.

At the Woodlawn-based Social Security Administration and its offices around the country, confusion and anger over the partial government shutdown have been the order of the week. Workers have been bewildered by mixed signals over paid leave and filled with anxiety over when and how much they will eventually be paid.

Vacations are being canceled. Angst is rising.

"Unbelievable," said Raymond F. Faby, the agency's chief administrative law judge in Baltimore. "Employees are really annoyed."

About 10,000 of Social Security's 66,000 workers were furloughed Monday and were told not to come to work under any circumstances. One employee who showed up because he "was bored" was quickly sent home.

Of the 56,000 who were kept on the job, many had had vacation plans for the holidays. But there's no authorization for paid leave -- either sick days or vacation -- during a government shutdown.

While workers at the Kansas City program center were being called in from leave, field offices in the Pacific Northwest early in the week were treating employees as if nothing had changed, DTC said Steve Kofahl, a Portland, Ore., official of the American Federation of Government Employees. Vacations went forward.

Then, as the week wore on, word arrived that paid leave was not permitted during a shutdown. So now, Mr. Kofahl said, payroll records are being changed to say that employees were on furlough rather than on leave. Furloughed workers are expected, though not guaranteed, to be paid once the government's spending authority is finally approved by Congress.

On Thursday, Social Security Commissioner Shirley S. Chater told employees that those with previously approved vacation for next week "may be furloughed" so that they can take the time off. Her memo didn't point out that there is no assurance that they will be paid.

After previous government shutdowns, Congress has approved pay for the employees who were furloughed, and Republican congressional leaders have said that that precedent will be followed this time. But some workers are skeptical.

With employees across the country seething over repeated changes in agency policy, Phil Gambino, the agency spokesman, acknowledged that there has been "some honest confusion." He sought to distance Ms. Chater from responsibility.

She "said all along that employees should not be placed at a disadvantage compared to those who are furloughed," he claimed, saying that what happened in Kansas City "was inappropriate." Workers on sick or maternity leave should have been furloughed.

Ms. Chater waited four days to send her memo Thursday about furloughs for vacation time because she was seeking "specific guidance" from the Office of Personnel Management, which she never received, Mr. Gambino said.

Essentially, said an OPM spokesman, agency chiefs are on their own.

While furloughed workers wonder about pay, so do those who are working. Late yesterday, Congress left town without adopting a temporary spending measure to end the shutdown. That means the next biweekly paychecks, due Jan. 2, will be only half their normal amounts.

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