Larry Echo Hawk and Dr. Yvette Roubideaux

How Essential are Federal Indian Employees?

Rob Capriccioso
4/12/11

WASHINGTON—While Congress and the Obama administration narrowly avoided a shutdown of the federal government via a last-minute deal late in the evening of April 8—in turn protecting Indian programs that could have been harmed by closure—the build-up to the standoff provided lessons of its own, including insight on just how many employees who work on Indian issues are necessary to the daily operation of the federal government.

As members of Congress and the administration bickered back and forth over budgetary ideals and anti-abortion riders, the conundrum faced by federal agency leaders was much more pragmatic: How many employees should be deemed “essential” if the government does end up closing shop? Decisions impacting three areas of government operations in particular—the Indian Health Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Bureau of Indian Education—were monitored closely by Indian country, as those agencies tend to most explicitly deal with Native issues. How many of their employees were deemed essential in case of a shutdown could speak volumes about the federal government’s commitment to Indians and its Constitutional and treaty trust responsibility to them.

Within the context of the Department of Health and Human Services, where Indian Health Services is housed, Indian-focused employees were deemed rather important. In fact, 94 percent of IHS employees were classified to be essential as the crisis unfolded. That amounts to approximately 14,740 workers designated necessary enough to keep getting paid, while 982 would have been put on leave.

“[T]he majority of our more than 15,000 employees will be excepted should there be a shutdown as the IHS continues services for life safety, health care, and the protection of property,” said Thomas Sweeney, spokesman for IHS, in the hours leading up to the possible shuttering. “Excepted means they will continue to work.”

If the government had shut down, no Indian health programs would have been forced to close as a result, Sweeney said, adding, “Our goal is to provide life, safety, and medical services for our patients”—an important designation in the hierarchy of federal criteria for who stays on during a furlough.

In comparison, only 1 percent of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration was deemed essential, while most other HHS agencies would have suffered dramatically reduced staffing in comparison to IHS.

IHS officials in particular know that even slight reductions in staffing levels can have major ramifications for Indians. After the 1995 federal shutdown, during which the agency faced furloughs, IHS director Michael Trujillo testified before Congress, “One result of staff furloughs was difficulty in processing funds for direct services and to contracting and compacting tribes so the delivery of health services could continue. Those staff that continued providing health services were not paid on time. Threats to shut off utilities to our health facilities and even to stop food deliveries were endured. We reached a point where some private sector providers indicated that they might not accept patients who were referred from Indian Health facilities because of the federal shutdown.”

Over at the BIA, Indian-focused employees were not considered to be as necessary as their IHS counterparts—at least according to the people in charge. A website posted by the Department of the Interior, which encompasses the agency, indicated that only 1,365 employees were deemed essential out of over 4,500 employees. That’s about 30 percent essential.

Even given that small number, the essentialness of BIA employees has apparently grown exponentially since the 1995 federal shutdown when all of its employees were furloughed. At that time, according to the Congressional Research Service, “All 13,500 Department of Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) employees were furloughed; general assistance payments for basic needs to 53,000 BIA benefit recipients were delayed; and an estimated 25,000 American Indians did not receive timely payment of oil and gas royalties.” Meanwhile, this time around at the Bureau of Indian Education, which oversees the operation of federal Indian schools, 3,976 of 4,238 employees were classified essential—which means classes would have been been open for most students.

Even though the contingency plans didn’t come into play, the numbers provide a measuring stick of how many Indian-focused employees are deemed necessary enough to keep working during a time of government shutdown. The contingency plans for IHS, BIA, and BIE will likely come to the foreground again in the near future, since a shutdown may soon be on the table again when the policymakers try to come to agreement on a 2012 budget.

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