MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Local News

October 8, 2013

VARO staff unsure about furloughs

They’ll go to office today but may not be allowed to work

Veterans Affairs Regional Office employees in Muskogee ended their day Monday with no clear idea about whether they will be able to work when they return today.

The furloughs that have been anticipated because federal lawmakers failed to fund government operations a week ago are expected to be a reality today. With congressional members on both sides of the aisle digging in their heels, it is unclear how long the furloughs will continue.

Workers may get back pay for the time they spent off when Congress finally funds government operations. But when that might happen remains unknown.

Jacob Nichols, a spokesman for the VA Regional Office in Muskogee, said Monday there was no change in the agency’s plans to close the office absent a breakthrough in the budget impasse.

“Should a federal budget resolution not be passed before we report to work on Tuesday, the regional office will initiate an orderly shutdown of non-essential operations,” Nichols said. “A final count of furloughed employees will not be available until tomorrow (Tuesday) afternoon.”

Workers leaving the office Monday, who reportedly were instructed not to speak publicly about the furloughs, said they were told to report for work today. But they were unsure about whether they would be able to work once they arrived.

The office’s continued operations depend on congressional funding, which was held up when House Republicans refused to pass a spending bill without tying it to the repeal or rollback of the Affordable Care Act. Senators accepted their sequester-level proposal but stripped tea party Republicans’ extraneous demands from the continuing budget resolution before sending it back to the House, where it never went to the floor for a vote.

The Republican-controlled House has since passed a string of bills that would fund some of the more popular government programs such as national parks and veterans services. The Democratic-controlled Senate, however, has remained resolute in its opposition to any measures that fall short of funding all government operations.

Despite the regional office’s anticipated closing, Nichols said claims processing and payments in the compensation, pension, education, and vocational rehabilitation programs should continue through late October. In the event of a prolonged shutdown, claims processing and payments to program recipients could be suspended when all available funding is exhausted.

Muskogee’s regional office, the largest of 56 across the country, employs nearly 1,400 people. It processes 48 percent of all education claims filed by veterans nationwide, providing more than $4 billion a year in benefits for veterans and their dependents.

Muskogee is home to the VA’s only call center that responds to education benefits inquiries. During the past 12 months, call center employees have answered more than 3.4 million calls and responded to more than 100,000 email inquiries.

With an annual payroll of $105 million, the regional office is the city’s largest employer. It supports an additional 600 private-sector jobs with annual earnings of more than $62 million.

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or dsmoot@muskogeephoenix.com.

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