If Washington lawmakers can't reach a budget agreement by Friday, several federal employees in Summit County could be placed on furlough - and the length of it isn't certain.
In fact, nothing about it is certain.
Except that more than 53,000 federal employees statewide could be affected, the Denver Post reported Thursday. That includes about 20 U.S. Forest Service employees in the Dillon Ranger District office in Silverthorne.
It also includes Frisco resident Cathy Cunningham, an environmental protection specialist with the Bureau of Reclamation. She isn't sure whether her job is considered "essential" or "non-essential," but has been told a list will be posted today.
The Associated Press reported Thursday that, in general, federal officials aren't sure which employees fall into which category - except that members of the military, at least, would be expected to continue working without pay.
"As far as I know, I would be (furloughed)," Cunningham said. "But there's a lot of uncertainty right now."
She said the Bureau of Reclamation is keeping employees relatively informed of federal legislators' progress - and theirs is a message of hope that the furlough won't occur and the budget differential will get fixed.
According to the Associated Press, Colorado Sen. Mark Udall wrote to Republican House Speaker John Boehner Wednesday urging him to avoid a shutdown, saying it could hamper the economic recovery. It was signed by 15 moderate Democrats, including Colorado's junior senator, Michael Bennet.
As one of the larger federal employers in Summit County, the U.S. Forest Service's Dillon Ranger District office would likely close, putting 20 to 25 employees temporarily out of work.
"Agency operational plans are still being finalized, but in the event of a government shutdown most USDA activities would be shut down or significantly reduced and most USDA employees would be furloughed," a Department of Agriculture agency official said. "However, certain USDA activities would continue because they are related to law enforcement, the protection of life and property, or are financed through available funding (such as through user fees)."
National Forest system recreation sites that don't require a Forest Service employee would remain open.
Michele Knight, owner of Knight Accounting and Technology in Dillon, said the Internal Revenue Service could be affected as they process paper refunds and returns, but individual income tax filings are still due April 18.
"According to the IRS Commissioner (Douglas Shulman), the IRS is putting some contingency plans into place which they will announce late Thursday or early Friday," Knight said. "The government shutdown will affect the processing of paper returns and paper refunds (those paid by check), but should not affect returns and refunds for taxpayers electronically filing and requesting their refunds be direct deposited."
For Cunningham, the looming possibility of furlough has an interesting twist - she's on vacation next week, so either way, she won't be in the office. But whether her vacation is paid or unpaid is to be determined.
Cunningham acknowledged that her story of relative security isn't true for all government employees affected by the inability of lawmakers to come to a consensus.
"Some folks, especially early in their careers, do live paycheck to paycheck," she said. "There's not much control over what a person can do" - particularly when rent, mortgage payments, car payments and other bills come due. And then there's the question of whether employees will receive back pay for their time, which is up to Congress.
In 1995, the government shut down twice, for six days in November and for 21 days in December, the Denver Post reported Thursday. Both times, employees were eventually paid for the time off. But a 21-day furlough would present a problem for most people, Cunningham said.
"What it comes down to for me - and all federal employees - is, if it happens, and if it happens, for how long?" Cunningham said.