Federal Employees Return to Work Thursday

Hundreds of thousands of furloughed federal employees in the D.C. area -- and throughout the country -- returned to work Thursday after President Obama signed a bill Wednesday night to reopen the government.

The Office of Management and Budget made the announcement late Wednesday, explaining that employees should return to work on their next scheduled work day. But news that they could go back to work answered only one of the many questions posed by federal workers as the shutdown ended.

Here's what we know now about this compromise plan, and what it means for federal workers and contractors.

Do you have a question that we haven't addressed? Email us here and we'll try to get an answer.

Q: What is in the proposal that was voted on Wednesday night?

A: The deal funds the federal government through Jan. 15 and extends the government's ability to borrow money through Feb. 7. It also calls for a conference committee to meet to hash out the more difficult questions of how much to spend and on what -- including whether Congress should continue to fund the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.

Q: Does that vote reopen the government?

A: Yes. The government had stopped nonessential work because it no longer had authority to pay workers or fund operations. President Obama signed the bill early Thursday morning.

Q: When would furloughed workers go back to work?

A: Late Wednesday night, the Office of Management and Budget asked workers to return to work Thursday.

Usually, furloughed workers are expected back to work the next work day after a furlough ends. But the vote Wednesday came late, so workers should also listen for further guidance from their own departments.

So how will workers be notified that it is time to return to work, since they have turned in their Blackberries and aren't supposed to be checking work email? They should watch local media -- and check the department's public website, if it has one. 

Q: Will workers -- whether they were furloughed or deemed essential and required to work -- get paid for the time they lost?

A: Yes. Federal workers who were furloughed or worked without pay during the shutdown will get back pay in their next paychecks, which for most employees come Oct. 29, the Associated Press reported Thursday.

For workers who were required to work -- without pay -- during the shutdown, the federal government's official guidance to furloughed employees (there's a booklet) says "employees will be paid after Congress passes and the President signs a new appropriation or continuing resolution."

Keep in mind: Federal workers who were deemed essential and had to work overtime during the shutdown, thanks to the skeleton staffs left behind at many agencies, are eligible for overtime pay once paychecks are restored.

Q: What about vacation or sick time that non-essential workers had scheduled during the furlough period? Will workers get paid for that?

A: The government furlough guidance says that any paid time off is canceled for furloughed workers. You can't get paid time off when you aren't working at all. On the plus side, workers still will have that time off when they return to work.

Q: If this deal only funds the government until Jan. 15, are we going to be back in this situation again in three months?

A: Maybe. The deal puts off the hard conversation about which government programs to fund and which to cut, assigning that task to the conference committee. When Sen. Mitch McConnell, representing the Republican minority in the Senate, commented on the Senate deal, he had tough words for the Affordable Care Act in particular.

"This law is ravaging our economy, killing jobs, driving up premiums, and driving people off the health care plans they have and like," McConnell said.

So that means a fight over government spending still looms. The question is whether that would again trigger a shutdown of the government. That does seem less likely given the international and domestic outrage over the shutdown, as epitomzed by this NBCNews / Wall Street Journal poll, which said 60 percent of those asked said every member of Congress should be voted out of office.

Q: So how much did this standoff cost the economy?

A: Standard and Poor's said Wednesday that the shutdown has "shaved at least 0.6% off" of economic growth in the fourth quarter, meaning it has taken $24 billion out of the economy.

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