Government public affairs pros wait out impasse

Scores of public affairs officials working for federal agencies have been furloughed without pay until Congress can agree on a budget. Some departments have only handfuls of staffers on-hand.

WASHINGTON: The government shutdown means that scores of public affairs officials working for federal agencies have been furloughed without pay until Congress can agree on a budget.

An estimated 800,000 of the 2.1 million federal workers deemed “nonessential” for government operations did not go to the office on Tuesday or left early after wrapping up critical projects. In many instances, federal entities went from having dozens of public affairs personnel to single-digit staffs after the shutdown began Tuesday at midnight.

For instance, the Department of Veterans Affairs' office of public and intergovernmental affairs went from a team of 91 to one staffer. That employee will continue to answer questions about the availability and location of continued VA services. His job is considered a “protection of life” position and therefore necessary, the federal agency said in a contingency plan for the shutdown.

The US Department of Agriculture dropped from 78 public affairs staffers to two and will cease media relations during the shutdown.  

“Press releases will not be generated nor will there be USDA contact with the media,” it said in its contingency plan.

The Department of Justice also indicated in a recorded message on its press line that media inquiries will not be returned until after the shutdown ends.

Democrats and Republicans in Congress were unable to come to an agreement to fund the federal government by Tuesday at midnight, putting into motion the first government shutdown in 17 years. Much of the debate has focused on Republican efforts to defund the Affordable Care Act as part of the budget process.

Several departments, including Housing and Urban Development, have directed employees to listen to public broadcasts and other media to learn when the government will be up and running again. It added that if a fiscal 2014 appropriation is approved, staffers will be expected to return to work the next day.

The Internal Revenue Service has said its remaining communications employees will “sustain necessary information flow to all service personnel regarding the shutdown, furlough status, and recall.”

In the event of a communications emergency, furloughed employees could be on-call or required to report to work to perform expected duties, the Department of Health and Human Services' plan stated. Enrollment in states' health insurance exchanges, mandated by the Affordable Care Act and overseen in some cases by HHS, also began on Tuesday.

The shutdown is the latest blow for PR vendors that count the federal government as a major client. Firms have taken note of a drop in funding from the public sector, leading to layoffs and shutdowns in some instances.

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