Impact of the Government Shutdown on FDA Employees


Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture and FDA, U.S. House of Representatives

Chairman Bishop, Ranking Member Fortenberry and members of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture and the Food & Drug Administration, I am grateful to have this opportunity to present the views of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) on the Status of Operations at the Food & Drug Administration (FDA).  NTEU represents the bargaining unit employees at FDA.  These employees are among the most skilled and dedicated that you will find anywhere in the public or private sector. 

Mr. Chairman, the recent 35-day partial government shutdown was absolutely devastating for the employees at the FDA.  Many employees were sent home without pay, including at one point 95% of the employees at the Center for Food Safety and Nutrition (CFSAN) and 70% of the employees at the Office of Regulatory Affairs (ORA).  ORA inspectors visit firms and plants domestically and internationally, ‎looking at the processes to insure these companies are following safe standards in the processing, production and importation of goods to ports or store shelves. ORA labs test products, both routinely and when a potential problem has been identified, and ORA Compliance officers are tasked with detaining products with problematic lab results. In addition to the furloughed CFSAN and ORA employees, many of those involved in purchasing of lab equipment and instruments used by FDA scientists were furloughed.  FDA now faces a period of low productivity as the employees have been called backed but they lack the supplies to do their job.

Some other FDA employees were also called back from furlough and forced to work without pay.  And while a minority of FDA employees were able to continue being paid through user fees collected before the shutdown, these employees knew these funds would eventually be exhausted if the shutdown continued for too long, and they would end up in the same situation as their colleagues who were already working without pay.  These employees were also asked to perform their work without the assistance and collaboration of furloughed colleagues.  Mr. Chairman, the English poet John Donne once wrote “No man is an island.”  Neither is any scientist or chemist or researcher an island as they carry out their important work.

The troubles suffered by employees were much more complicated than just missing paychecks, as significant as that is.  Much of the essential work of FDA requires domestic and overseas travel for inspections.  FDA employees were required to put their work-related travel expenses on their credit cards with no certainty about when they might receive reimbursement from the agency.   This was an absolutely outrageous imposition on employees already being forced to work without pay.  I brought this matter directly to the FDA Commissioner’s attention and I am pleased that, with Dr. Gottlieb’s direct involvement, an accommodation was eventually implemented during the middle of the shutdown that allowed for travel billing directly to the agency rather than an employee’s credit card. One NTEU member in Chicago who was required to work and to conduct an inspection in Poland was initially told to put her airfare, hotel and travel expenses on her personal credit card.  Thankfully, the accommodation was implemented just shortly before she left for Poland did not have to bear the full cost of this trip.

Many employees who were forced to work without pay still had to bear the expenses of child care and commuting.  And those who were home often faced the dilemma of either continuing to pay for child care or losing their spot with the provider. In Philadelphia, an FDA employee had to take out a loan because he had two kids in college and their tuition was due during the shutdown.  

Prior to the shutdown, job offers had been made to a number of persons with start dates that occurred during the shutdown.  NTEU does not know how many decided to withdraw their offer to work at FDA and would encourage the Subcommittee to investigate this.

During the shutdown, FDA employees suffered both personal hardship and, because of their dedication to their public service work, they were troubled by the critical tasks they knew were not being done to protect the health and safety of the American consumer.  It is essential that the Appropriations Committee, Congress and the President never allow such a shutdown to happen again. 

The Subcommittee should remember that FDA is a staff-intensive organization, with more than 80% of its budget devoted to staff costs.  It is also a high functioning organization with a critical mission of protecting the American consumer.   In the early 2000’s, FDA was overwhelmed by its responsibilities and was given few resources.   Over the past decade, this Subcommittee has been responsive to the needs for additional resources.  However, even with these new resources, the responsibilities of the agency have grown enormously.  Now, FDA faces a backlog of work, a morale crisis unnecessarily created by the shutdown, and the possibility that skilled professionals who had been willing to work in public service for less compensation than offered by the private sector could now decide to leave the agency. 

Thank you for giving NTEU this opportunity to present our views.