In Washington, D.C., and at federal agencies across the country, the big question employees are asking on the eve of a possible government shutdown is: Am I essential or not? Workers and agencies that are deemed essential will be kept on the job if a shutdown occurs.
The Obama administration says the government agencies that will remain open fall into two broad categories. Most are those necessary for the protection of life and property — including the military, law enforcement such as the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Border Patrol. The Federal Aviation Administration, whose air traffic controllers are essential to keep airlines flying, will be on the job, as will the Transportation Security Administration to screen passengers for those flights.
Other agencies open are those that have outside sources of income or user fees. That would include the Postal Service. Social Security checks will continue to go out, since it's a system that's largely automated. Medicare benefits would be paid. And tax refund checks will go out, for those who filed electronically, according to IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman.
"In the event of a shutdown, people really should file electronically, because most of these returns are processed automatically and will not experience any delays," Shulman says. "However, taxpayers who file paper returns will experience some delays if we end up in a government shutdown."
The Obama administration says about 30 percent of tax returns are filed on paper. And it says tax audits will be halted if there is a shutdown.
Federal courts will remain open, since they too rely on the fees they collect for operating expenses. And while the Supreme Court will be open, it isn't in session anyway.
The government says clinical trials currently under way at the National Institutes of Health will continue, but new ones won't be started. And there are a lot of gray areas where it's unclear whether government-funded activities will continue.
Roy Meyers, a political science professor at UMBC in Baltimore, points to animal testing that is conducted at FDA labs. "It would be my strong assumption that those FDA employees would be allowed to stay," he says.
So really the decisions have to come down to those fine details about whether an individual's presence on the job is truly essential to carry out that activity, or whether he or she can in effect return to that activity whenever Congress and the president agree on whether to provide funding.
What is frustrating for government employees on the eve of a possible shutdown is that many have no idea whether their jobs are deemed exempt from a shutdown, says John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union.
"Employees are apparently going to be told to report to work Monday," Gage says. "Then they will be released, and those who are nonessential, nonexempt will be released and the other ones will be told to stay."
Gage's union filed suit against the Obama administration this week, demanding details of the agencies' contingency plans for a shutdown. Federal employees who work during a shutdown will be paid eventually. It will be up to Congress to determine whether those who are furloughed will be paid. Military personnel who remain on the job are certain of being paid, but when is unclear. Many could miss a paycheck if the shutdown continues for any length of time. Gage says none of this is fair to federal employees.
"People are really steaming about this," he says. "They feel it's political theater and they are not only concerned about their jobs, their mortgages, their bills, their paycheck — but they also know how devastating these shutdowns are to programs they believe in."
Still, with so many federal agencies deemed essential, it's unclear whether most Americans will even notice if the government is shut down.