To clarify, I’m referring to the partial government shutdown that started on midnight Dec. 22 and is still ongoing as of today. It started low-key – most of the week before Christmas we didn’t really think it would happen because the House and Senate had agreed to a bill we thought was headed for the president’s desk. But throughout the day on that Friday, watching the news, things started to unravel and a shutdown began to seem like something that might actually happen. As contractors supporting the federal government, we go through this drill three times a year every year so we are used to a little drama with an 11th-hour continuing resolution being passed and business as usual the next day. Not so this time.
In our company, 16 of our 200 employees and over a dozen subcontractors are furloughed. As a company, we avoided a catastrophic hit thanks to a diversified portfolio and dumb luck that some of our larger contracts were either funded or have the authorization to continue work.
But that luck doesn’t feel so lucky to each individual person affected. Each person is worried about how they can feed their family and pay their bills. These are not, generally speaking, highly compensated employees: they are admins, clerks, analysts, and tech writers – the kind of employee hit hardest in these situations. As a business owner, I feel so responsible for each employee. Each person took a risk taking a job with my company and my part of the deal is to give them work and a paycheck. But if we don’t have revenue coming in, it’s difficult to keep paying the employees.
What are we doing to help our employees? We allowed employees to go into “negative” PTO to an extent, so they can continue to be paid and avoid taking leave without pay. We also gave back a pot of “use it or lose it” leave that had been forfeited back to the company. And we asked all employees if they would be willing to donate some or their PTO to help their colleagues – we calculated that if everyone donated just one hour of leave, that would be one day of pay for all of our furloughed employees. We got a wonderful response. Currently, 42 employees (and counting) have contributed anywhere from one to more than 10 hours, with some incredibly generous people donating several days of leave.
As of today, due to some corporate flexibility and the generosity of employees, we have been able to keep paying every employee their full paycheck. The givers and recipients have both expressed appreciation for this PTO donation program. In this way, I’m happy we were able to turn a tough situation into a positive one that brings the company together.
I’m still worried about the future because this solution is not sustainable. I will have to make tough decisions about how long we can afford to continue paying employees whose work is stopped. I need to be a leader to my team in the face of unknowns, which means being positive but honest and communicating with them even if I don’t have the answers. I am personally frustrated, and my colleagues are as well. To keep the faith, we can remember that when the government is running, we continue to do really good work, and over the past 20 (or 100) years, things have been very stable… and hope for a resolution soon.