A looming government shutdown -- a threat to some, a blessing to others -- has federal agencies in Southern Nevada scrambling for answers in advance of the midnight deadline.
The situation is far too fluid to gauge the likelihood of a shutdown. If it does happen, the biggest initial effect will be on those planning to visit any number of federally managed recreation sites. Reconsideration of such plans is advised.
Representatives of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area and Red Rock National Conservation Area on Thursday echoed their counterparts at the Grand Canyon and Utah's Zion National Park: Other than closing to the public, "We don't know what will happen."
ESSENTIAL EMPLOYEES TO BE DETERMINED
Lake Mead spokesman Andrew Munoz said the U.S. Park Service has told its employees not to discuss shutdown contingency plans because the service is still trying to determine which employees are essential, defined as necessary to maintain security and keep Congress running, and which are not. Cabinet secretaries make the call.
Essential employees will report to work and receive a paycheck. Nonessential workers will stay home. They can't volunteer to work for free and they can't take vacation time or sick leave. Any nonessential employee on vacation during the shutdown won't get vacation pay.
The Park Service isn't the only agency scrambling.
"We're still waiting to hear who our essential and non-essential employees are," said Kirsten Cannon, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management, regarding Red Rock Conservation Area.
Cannon said Department of Interior officials are making plans that will blanket the entire BLM and U.S. Forest Service, which also falls under Interior's umbrella.
"They want it to be bureau-wide so we have consistency," she said.
Both Cannon and Munoz said formal shutdown plans won't be released to employees until later this afternoon.
Spokespeople for the Grand Canyon and Zion national parks also said they were uncertain what will happen if the government puts up a closed sign.
A LOOK AT THE LAST SHUTDOWN
If past is prologue, the historical record might clarify matters. The government last shutdown happened Nov. 14-19, 1995, and again from Dec. 16, 1995 to Jan. 6, 1996.
In November 1995, hundreds of federal employees in the Las Vegas area were told to stay home when the government closed up shop, but thousands remained on the job, according to news reports of the day.
That meant boaters were not able to launch because ramps were closed at lakes Mead and Mojave, and federal campgrounds were also closed. Campers already on site were given 48 hours to leave.
Most BLM workers were temporarily laid off, with the exception of fire and law enforcement personnel.
While the military won't be laid off, service personnel won't get paid during a shutdown but would get back pay afterward. In 1995, about 30 civilian employees out of 2,000 at Nellis Air Force Base were affected.
According to figures compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2010, 38,188 Nevadans are current or retired federal workers.
Most of them, 24,056, reside in Clark County.
Thousands of them would be out of work statewide -- however temporarily -- if the federal government closes for business at midnight for want of a budget.
But even within specific agencies, the impact would vary. The U.S. Postal Service is self-funded, and retirement checks will be delivered -- rain, snow or government shutdown -- by 4,707 postal employees working in Nevada. However, passport applications won't be processed.
In 1995, the federal courthouse remained open for business because the courts were declared essential.
Lance Wilson, U.S. District Court executive, said the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has money set aside to keep federal courts fully funded for 10 working days even after a shutdown.
"There should be no interruption at all of court proceedings or hearings," Wilson said. Even if a shutdown goes longer, the courts could declare employees "essential" and keep them on the job, he said.
The Justice Department said it is still finalizing its shutdown plan.
"In the event of a government shutdown, the Department of Justice's critical national security, law enforcement, and prison operations -- operations that are necessary to safely protect life and property -- will continue. ...," according to a written statement. "All FBI personnel in the field will continue to work."
The departments of Defense and Homeland Security combined employ 4,058 employees in Nevada; this figure doesn't include civilian contractors at the Nevada National Security Site (formerly the Nevada Test Site).
"Civilian contract workers will definitely be impacted," said Dan Adcock, the legislative director of the National Association of Active and Retired Federal Employees.
"In Las Vegas, I think it's safe to think the people who run the turbines and provide security at Hoover Dam are essential employees," said Adcock. "The tour guides are not."
Adcock said federal workers and retirees in Nevada who have questions or concerns over the potential shutdown can obtain counseling from his group by calling 1-800-627-3394 or online at www.narfe.org.
Veterans Affairs has the second highest number of Nevada employees with 2,634, followed by the Department of the Interior with 2,319 (this figure includes the Bureau of Land Management and United States Forest Service). The Department of Agriculture has 582 employees in Nevada; and is followed by the departments of Energy/EPA (421); Treasury (413); Transportation (377); Commerce (169); and Labor (44). Slightly more than 800 federal workers in Nevada are classified as "other."
There are 248 Social Security employees -- some likely to be furloughed -- but Social Security benefit checks will be mailed. However, new claimants might see a delay in processing.
And while government pensioners will get checks in the mail along with Social Security beneficiaries, don't spend your tax refund check if you don't already have it: The Internal Revenue Service will close, though it's a safe bet it won't be gone forever.
Contact Doug McMurdo at dmcmurdo@review journal.com or 702-224-5512.