The State Department is ordering its staff back to work next week, pledging that it will find the money to pay them despite the partial government shutdown.
In an “urgent message” issued on the 27th day of the shutdown, Deputy Under Secretary for Management Bill Todd told staff that “as a national security agency, it is imperative that the Department of State carries out its mission. We are best positioned to do so with fully staffed embassies, consulates, and domestic offices.”
“As a result, all State Department direct-hire employees and State Department locally employed staff are expected to report to work on their first work day in Pay Period 2,” Todd wrote. He noted that for most employees, that will be January 22, while for others posted in countries where the work week begins on Sunday, that will be January 20.
Todd wrote that given the “increasing hardship to employees caused by the ongoing lapse in appropriations, the Department is taking steps to make additional funds available to pay employee salaries.”
No effort had been made to do so earlier because agency officials had thought the shutdown would end earlier, according to a State Department statement. However, according to three State Department officials and one former State Department official, the early January retirement of Christopher Flaggs, who oversaw all compensation systems at the State Department, made finding the money to keep the department open for purposes of national security more challenging than it should have been.
Just days after the government shutdown took hold, Flaggs left his post as the comptroller of the department.
Due to the shutdown, the State Department did not reply to a request for comment on Flaggs’ retirement.
In a statement, the State Department said that it had done “its best to address matters essential to achieving US national security and foreign policy objectives during the ongoing lapse, it has become clear as the lapse has continued to historic lengths, that we need our full team to address the myriad critical issues requiring US leadership around the globe.”
A State Department spokesperson said the money will come from “residual balances” and will cover State Department employees at bureaus that are not already funded. These balances could have been left over from the last fiscal year or several fiscal years. The spokesperson noted the funding will not cover back pay – that will have to wait until the budget for fiscal year 2019 is approved – and will only be available for one pay period, after which Congress will have to approve additional funding.
Beyond that point, the Department will act with the guidance of the Office of Management and Budget.
According to the agency, as of Thursday, approximately 23% of US direct hire overseas employees and 40% of direct hire domestic employees have been furloughed. The emergency funding move was coordinated with OMB and the White House, according to the State Department.
It does not cover locally employed staff, most of whom are set to receive pay through March 2.
Sen. Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey and the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, criticized the stopgap funding method.
“There is no doubt that President Trump’s temper tantrum over his wall and his pointless government shutdown continues to create a real risk for U.S. foreign policy, and what we stand for as a nation,” he said in a statement. “And while I believe it is critically important that our diplomacy and development professionals get paid for their service to our nation, trying to hold a government together with duct tape and bailing wire is no way to govern.”
As of September, agency figures show it employs 13,855 foreign service officers, 10,171 civil service employees and just over 49,734 locally employed staff in postings around the world.
Todd noted that while most personnel operations will resume, bureaus and posts will be expected to adhere to strict budget constraints when it comes to new spending for contracts, travel and other needs.
Todd’s “urgent message” comes on the same day he issued a letter “to whom it may concern,” asking for patience and understanding as State Department employees “may have difficulty meeting their financial obligations on time” as they are not being paid at the moment.
“We extend our thanks in advance for your patience and compassion towards our employees during this time when they are negatively impacted by the lapse in appropriations,” he wrote.
In its statement, the State Department said it was “deeply concerned about growing financial hardship and uncertainty affecting Department employees whose salaries and well being are affected by the unprecedented length of the lapse.”