Virginia senators concerned that shutdown could jeopardize security clearances

Furloughed workers cite compounding problems, such as health insurance lapse

Brian Uholik, right, a furloughed Justice Department employee, holds his infant daughter Wynnie while discussing with his wife Jamie how the government shutdown has impacted their family during a roundtable discussion with government employees and Sens. Mark Warner and Sen. Tim Kaine. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Brian Uholik is a proud father of a new baby daughter, but he’s also a furloughed trial attorney at the Department of Justice.

Uholik was among the federal employees from Northern Virginia who met Friday morning with Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, both Democrats who have been pushing for a quick end to the partial government shutdown.

But his story was perhaps the most unique, as it pointed to yet another unforeseen complication as the lapse in appropriations was on the verge of setting a new record in duration. He couldn’t immediately get the newborn Wynnie onto his federal employee health benefits, even as she needed medication. He said he could not get through to the federal benefits administrators because that staff was also on furlough.

Uholik’s story had a happy ending as he able to provide enough evidence to the insurance company to work around the furlough of the human resources department, but he said he was concerned that might not be true for some of the other roughly 800,000 furloughed federal employees.

“I can’t imagine for families out there where that wasn’t possible ... or if it was a medication that was legitimately life or death as opposed to just, you know, is your infant going to be comfortable or experience some discomfort,” Uholik told the senators.

The Office of Personnel Management, which oversees the FEHB, did not immediately respond to a query from Roll Call about health insurance benefits administration.

The meeting came on the first day that many federal workers are not receiving paychecks, or in some cases actually receiving paychecks for $0.00.

Kaine and Warner also heard from Dan Ronneberg, the president of an AFSCME Local of FAA headquarters employees, who said at the time he was furloughed himself, he had what sounded like some rather essential aviation safety paperwork to process.

“One of the things that was sitting on my desk right before I left is I got a request from the Department of Defense to authorize civilian helicopter operators in Iraq,” Ronneberg said. “They’re not supporting Americans, and that’s my job, and it’s a shame I’m not there doing my job.”

Asked about that particular case after the round-table, the senators said that it did raise more questions about the manner in which the Trump administration has decided which employees need to report to work without pay.

“I think that’s a really valid question. And I think in the past this has always been left to the administration to determine, and it concerns me if we’ve got helicopters in Iraq that need to be approved — that sounds to me like a pretty essential function,” Warner said. “But what we’ve seen from this administration is, they thought they could shut down the government and it wouldn’t affect folks.”

“That process, where they have politicized who is essential and who is not, needs to come to an end,” Warner said.

Kaine also noted the large number of furloughs at the Department of Agriculture.

“You have to ask the question, under what rational, compassionate human scheme is a family needing food stamps, well that’s not essential?” Kaine said. “We can furlough 95 percent of the workforce dealing with the SNAP program?”

Warner, who is also the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, released a letter Friday afternoon questioning OPM and the Office of Management and Budget about yet another potential problem: the risk that federal employees who hold or are applying for security clearances could fall behind on their bills and their falling credit ratings could be viewed as a security threat.

“Today, federal employees at agencies that lack an appropriation have missed their first paycheck due to the government shutdown, and may be unable to make payments on rent, mortgage, credit cards, or other debts. This could impact their credit scores and thus jeopardize their ability to secure or maintain a clearance or hold a position of trust,” Warner wrote in the letter, which was dated Thursday. “Due to absolutely no fault of their own, the jobs of dedicated government personnel whom we entrust with the nation’s secrets could be at stake. The problem is particularly acute for younger workers who lack a long credit history.”

Warner directed the letter to acting OPM Director Margaret Weichert and OMB Director Mick Mulvaney (who is also the acting chief of staff at the White House).

“While I understand that departments and agencies have discretion to consider broader factors that may affect credit (like a government shutdown), I ask you to issue clear and public guidance that departments and agencies may in no way penalize employees’ clearances or determinations of trustworthiness if their credit is effected by the shutdown,” Warner wrote.

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