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The uncertainty over the federal budget has federal employees in Washington, D.C. and across the country asking: Am I essential or not? Those workers and agencies deemed essential will be kept on the job even if there is a shutdown.

NPR's Brian Naylor explains how it would work.

BRIAN NAYLOR: The Obama administration says the government agencies that will remain open in case of a shutdown fall into two broad categories. Most are those necessary for the protection of life and property. That includes the military, law enforcement, such as the FBI and DEA, the Border Patrol. The FAA, whose air traffic controllers are essential to keep airlines flying, will be on the job, as will be the TSA to screen passengers for those flights. Other agencies open are those that have outside sources of income or user fees. That would include the Post Office. Social Security checks will continue to go out, since it's a system that's largely automated. And Medicare benefits would be paid.

Oh, and tax refund checks will go out, providing you filed electronically, according to IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman.

Mr. DOUG SHULMAN (Commissioner, IRS): 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. However, taxpayers who file paper returns will experience some delays if we end up in a government shutdown.

NAYLOR: The Obama administration says about 30 percent of tax returns are filed on paper. And it says those pesky tax audits will be halted if there's 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, the court is not currently in session anyways.

The government says clinical trials currently underway 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 if government-funded activities will continue.

For instance, Roy Meyers, a political science professor at UMBC in Baltimore, points to animal testing conducted at FDA labs.

Professor ROY MEYERS (UMBC): It'd be my strong assumption that those FDA employees would be allowed to stay. 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 you can in effect return to that activity whenever Congress and the president agree on whether to provide funding or not.

NAYLOR: What's frustrating for government employees on the eve of a possible shutdown is many have no idea whether their jobs are deemed exempt from a shutdown or not, says John Gage. He is president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union.

Mr. JOHN GAGE (President, American Federation of Government Employees): Employees apparently are going to be told to report to work Monday, then they will be released. And those who are non-essential, non-exempt, will be released, and the other ones will be told to stay.

NAYLOR: Gage's union filed suit against the Obama administration this week, demanding details of the agency's 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 just 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.

Mr. GAGE: People are really steaming about this. 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 that they believe in.

NAYLOR: Still, with so many federal agencies deemed essential, it's unclear whether most Americans will even notice if the government is shut down.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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