Checking Email a Crime, Furloughed Workers Warned

Monday, 07 Oct 2013 05:04 PM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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Furloughed government workers are prohibited by federal law from checking their email — even if they're wondering if they've been called back to work.

According to a notice posted on the Small Business Administration's website, furloughed employees are committing a "criminal offense" if they use federal resources during a government shutdown, and that includes using the government email system, reports The Weekly Standard.

The notice is directed to SBA employees, but it likely applies to all furloughed employees, as they technically could be accused of violating the obscure Antideficiency Act reports The Washington Post.

That law forbids workers from "employing personal services not authorized by law, except in cases of emergency involving the safety of human life or the protection of property," and people who violate it can face fines or even time behind bars.

The SBA's website notice reads: "Please be advised, during the furlough period, non-excepted employees will no longer be permitted to utilize SBA email or other federal resources. Please know that use of federal resources while on furlough status is prohibited by law and is considered a criminal offense. Employees must NOT represent the agency in any formal or informal capacity."

An Office of Personnel Management document issued on Oct. 4, does not address the email issue, but does tell workers they can't volunteer to do their jobs while furloughed.

Employees likely won't be able to check their agencies' websites for information, either, as many government websites, such as those operated by the Federal Trade Commission, are down while the government shutdown continues into its second week.

The email restrictions don't just apply to laptops or home computers, reports Politico, but also to smartphones.

A letter sent from the House Administration Committee to the chamber's nonessential employees said:

"Due to legal requirements, working in any way during a period of furlough (even as a volunteer) is grounds for disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment. To avoid violating this prohibition, we strongly recommend that you turn your BlackBerrys off for the duration of the furlough.”

Back in 2011, when another potential shutdown loomed, the House also threatened to require furloughed employees to turn in their smartphones, although that demand has not yet been made this time around. Further, in 2011, employees were told to set an "out of office" message on their email accounts.

The last time there was a full government shutdown, during President Bill Clinton's administration in 1995, few people had mobile devices. But now, as nearly everybody has a smartphone, an order to avoid email will likely be very difficult, if not impossible, to enforce.

Related story:

More Than 100 Lawmakers Go Without Shutdown Pay

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