As this column is being written, Congress is feuding over the terms of a budget to keep the government running until the end of September. The government has been running on a series of continuing resolutions since Oct. 1, 2010. These are effectively short-term agreements to keep funding going to the government while the Republicans and Democrats claim to be negotiating. Now, however, the continuing resolutions have stopped and a shutdown looms.
The good news for many federal IT workers is that their jobs are considered essential, and they will continue to show up for work as always. The bad news is that they won't get paid until a new budget is approved, and when pay does resume, they may find that they get less money and fewer benefits. It's even possible that they won't get paid at all for the time worked during the shutdown, but they'll still be required to work.
Other government IT workers will be furloughed. The non-essential IT workers are those who update most of the government's Web sites and who do things like process visas or print paychecks. If the shutdown lasts long enough, your paper tax forms won't be processed because there won't be anyone to key the info into a computer. After nine days of shutdown, the Space Shuttle Endeavour won't be launched on time.
Essential IT workers are those who work in data centers that must keep running, even in agencies that are mostly shutting down. The reason is that you can't just pull the plug on a data center, and every agency will have some essential workers who will need computer access. So the computers will stay up, but the help desk might not. You won't be able to buy a new computer, and customer service won't be there.
IT workers at the Federal Aviation Adminstration, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Coast Guard and agencies such as hospitals and the CDC will mostly be considered essential, although a few customer-facing workers may be furloughed. However, it's still unclear whether Social Security payments will go out (although they probably will) or whether tax refunds will be mailed (they probably won't).
IT contractors may have their jobs altered, but will still probably continue working. Contractors who work in government buildings that are closed because of the shutdown will likely be locked out of their offices, but they can use this time to catch up on training, take vacation or work on projects that aren't for the government or aren't shut down. Plus, many contractors provide essential IT services for the government, and they'll continue to work. They'll also get paid since they work for private companies.
If you're not a federal worker, you can expect to find some government services become unavailable during the time that your elected representatives try to prove that politics is more important than serving the people who elected them. You'll still get weather reports from the National Weather Service and the air traffic system will continue to function, so you can still travel. But if you're trying to enter the United States and need a visa, you'll find that visa processing has stopped - there won't be anyone in the IT shop to handle that.
The actual details of people who are considered essential and non-essential are still being worked out. Federal agencies are still making plans while Congress engages in puffery. If you're a federal employee, you may not know for sure whether you have a job on April 11 until quitting time April 8. And even then you may be required to report to work on April 11 long enough to turn in your smartphones and laptops.
But there are two real tragedies here, only one of which is IT-related. The first is that Congress isn't paying members of the military, including those deployed in war zones, despite the fact that it is requiring them to continue to risk their lives in the service of freedom. Speaking as a retired military officer, it is simply wrong to allow Congress to play politics with the lives of our soldiers, sailors and Marines. Congress itself will get paid (they saw to that), but they can't be bothered to pay or troops while they grandstand.
The second tragedy is the insult to all of those IT workers who will be forced to work without pay during the shutdown. These workers don't have the option of taking paid leave, they don't have the option of seeking temporary work that does pay. They simply are required to work, or they'll be punished. It's essentially involuntary servitude. This is just plain wrong.