Furloughed employees' latest headache: Work-related credit card debt

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As if going without pay during the monthlong partial government shutdown isn't enough, thousands of federal workers are dealing with another financial indignity: servicing debt on government-issued credit cards.

They are receiving credit card bills — for which they are personally responsible — for work-related expenses they incurred before the shutdown, but can't get reimbursed because their agencies are mostly closed and funds are frozen.

"It's just crazy what we're having to put up with," said Michael Gonzales, a regional vice president of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists union. "Something has to be done here. It's just bizarre."

JPMorgan Chase, one of several companies issuing government credit cards, will shield employees from downgrades to their credit scores for late payments, said spokesman Thomas Kelly.

"We don't charge late fees or interest on those cards, and have been telling that to the employees," Kelly said. "We also have told them to pay us once they get reimbursed."

That's consistent with the agreement issuers have with the government but it hasn't eliminated the concerns of Gonzales's members. Some of his members, aviation safety inspectors who are often required to travel for work, don't have the savings to pay the bills, he said.

The number of federal employees who have received such bills at shuttered agencies probably numbers in the tens of thousands, said an official with the American Federation of Government Employees union who asked not to be named because he wasn't authorized to speak about the issue. Almost all agencies now insist that employees put work credit cards in their own names and pay the bills themselves.

One Federal Aviation Administration air-traffic controller said he had recently paid a $2,000 bill for government travel because he feared he could run afoul of agency and bank rules. The controller, who asked not to be named because agency rules prohibit him from speaking to the media, said he doesn't know when he'll be reimbursed for the money.

More than a dozen major departments and agencies are without funds and have mostly sent employees home on furlough since Dec. 22 as a result of a dispute over whether to fund a wall on the border with Mexico. In some cases, such as Transportation Security Administration airport screeners, employees have been declared essential and are being told to report for work without pay.

Attempts to reach officials with the General Services Administration, which helped set up the federal worker credit card system, were unsuccessful. The GSA is one of the agencies that is shut down.

While no data is available on the total government-employee credit card balances since the shutdown began, government data suggests it could total many millions of dollars. Across all of government, employees spent an average of $673 million a month on travel-related purposes in 2016, according to GSA.

Citibank and U.S. Bank also issue cards under the program, according to GSA's website.

Bank agreements

The banks are required to have a plan for a government shutdown under their contracts. It requires that employees "shall not be assessed finance charges, aged delinquent, suspended, or canceled by the contractor during the government-wide shutdown," GSA said on its website.

In spite of those assurances, employees at multiple agencies interviewed by Bloomberg reported they'd been given a variety of sometimes contradictory guidance, or no guidance at all, on how to handle the expense bills.

At the Department of Homeland Security, which includes the TSA that monitors airport security at scores of airports across the country, employees believe they are responsible for paying the bills even though they can't be reimbursed until after the shutdown, said one official.

At a division of the FAA that oversees aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing, whose employees must frequently travel to U.S. and overseas locations, the agency was able to find money to reimburse several people who had been on trips shortly before the shutdown, said Scott Odle, head of the local union representing the workforce.

However, as some of those employees have begun to be recalled without pay, new questions are arising about how the agency will reimburse them for travel incurred during the shutdown, said Odle. He represents about 700 people under the umbrella of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union.

FAA managers have arranged for the agency to pay directly for large expenses, such as airfare and hotel bills, so employees aren't liable on their personal cards, he said. However, it's not clear how smaller incidental charges will be handled.

"That doesn't eliminate every charge that goes on the employee's card," he said.

Bloomberg News