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As Shutdown Drags on, Agencies Devoted to Consumer and Worker Health and Safety Unfunded and Deprioritized

In Washington, D.C., and across the nation, furloughs forced by the partial government shutdown have hit agencies with a mission to protect consumers and workers particularly hard.

The shutdown, which is in its 19th day and currently the second-longest in US history, was triggered by President Donald Trump’s insistence that the budget include $5.7 billion for a wall across the U.S. southern border. The shutdown is already impeding vital consumer and worker protection priorities.

If the shutdown is allowed to persist, the cessation of these essential consumer and worker protections threatens significant public harms, as corporate violators go unpunished and food and product safety inspections are delayed and decreased.

The importance of these functions makes even slight capacity reductions a serious cause for concern, and it is noteworthy that the majority of federal workers at unfunded agencies whose responsibilities are considered essential are required to keep working without pay.

Table: Eleven federal consumer and worker protection agencies affected by the shutdown:

AgencyTotal StaffFurloughed Staff% Furloughed
Consumer Product Safety Commission55053096%
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission2,0781,97595%
Environmental Protection Agency13,97213,16094%
Securities and Exchange Commission4,4364,15194%
Commodity Futures Trading Commission67359188%
Federal Communications Commission1,4421,19783%
Federal Trade Commission1,12486277%
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration58433157%
Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration56328551%
Food and Drug Administration17,9378,83049%
Federal Aviation Administration44,92917,79140%

Source: Agency shutdown memos submitted to the White House Office of Management and Budget.

For information about the specific impacts due to furloughs brought on by the shutdown at 11 federal consumer and worker protection agencies, read on.

 Consumer Product Safety Commission

 Only 20 members of the CPSC’s staff of 550 remain during the shutdown. According to the commission’s shutdown procedure memo, employees whose role is to “protect against imminent threats to human safety” are excepted from being furloughed, and so must continue to work without pay.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

The EEOC shutdown memo states that 95 percent of the commission’s staff is furloughed during the shutdown, leaving 103. The commission will still accept discrimination charges, but the charges will not be investigated and cases that were in process will not be litigated. Any mediations the agency had scheduled to carry out will be cancelled.

Environmental Protection Agency

At the EPA, 94 percent of staff are furloughed, deeply impacting both national and regional offices, according to the agency’s shutdown memo. The vast majority of those remaining on the job – 433 in the national office and 361 at regional offices – despite not being paid are excepted because they are “necessary to protect life and property.”

Gary Morton, president of AFGE Council 238, a federal employee union that represents most of the EPA’s workforce, told The Guardian, “State programs aren’t being funded, enforcement actions have stopped – it’s a nightmare.” An anonymous EPA staffer told The Guardian that once the shutdown is over it will take the agency “weeks” to catch up on core functions.

Securities and Exchange Commission

At the SEC, one of the most important corporate enforcement agencies, 94 percent of staff are furloughed, according to the commission’s shutdown memo. While the agency says that a small number of its employees will remain for “emergency enforcement matters,” its law enforcement and litigation activities will cease during the shutdown. The closure may be stymieing cases that must be brought quickly; Alec Koch, a former SEC enforcement attorney told Bloomberg Law that the shutdown may be inhibiting enforcement against pyramid schemes, offering frauds and insider trading abroad. “The staff is not able to be on the beat so to speak with respect to that kind of stuff right now,” Koch said.

Commodity Futures Trading Commission

At the CFTC, another important Wall Street regulator, only 82 of the commission’s 673 staff remain. The commission’s memo states that “the vast bulk of the CFTC’s operations will cease during a lapse of appropriations,” including “most functions of the division of enforcement, including but not limited to: the review and investigation of victim complaints, initiating actions against wrongdoers and protecting any victim assets that may be at risk in such situations.”

Federal Communications Commission

“Generally, during such a shutdown all FCC activities will cease other than those immediately necessary for the protection of life or property, performing other excepted activities or those funded through a source other than lapsed appropriations,” states the shutdown memo released by the FCC, where 83 percent of the staff is furloughed. Among the agency activities that cease during a shutdown are answering “consumer complaint and inquiry phone lines” and “consumer protection and local competition enforcement.”

Federal Trade Commission

The FTC’s shutdown contingency plan says 77 percent of the commission’s staff is to be furloughed, those that remain at work without pay are responsible for protecting “life and property.” According to the agency’s website, among the agency’s services that will be unavailable are the National Do Not Call Registry and other resources for filing consumer complaints and identity theft alerts.

The shutdown also will force the suspension of current investigations into corporate wrongdoing, including the ongoing Facebook investigation, The Washington Post reports. David Vladeck, a former director of the FTC’s consumer protection bureau and former litigator with the Public Citizen Litigation Group, said that during a shutdown, an investigation such as the agency is conducting into whether Facebook violated its 2011 consent agreement with the agency “just stops.”

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

At NHTSA, where 57 percent of staff are furloughed, among the consumer protection efforts that have ceased are, according to the Transportation Department’s shutdown plan, the agency’s “annually appropriated Vehicle Safety activities, including rulemaking, enforcement, research, data analysis, and consumer testing programs.” According to the memo, rulemakings are being delayed, investigations into auto defects have been suspended, vehicle compliance testing is delayed, safety research is not being conducted and routine defects and recall data, both from car companies and consumers, is not being reviewed.

In comments to The Detroit Free Press, former Public Citizen president and NHTSA administrator for the President Carter administration Joan Claybrook said the furloughs meant alerts about potential auto safety dangers were not being reported.

Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration

PHMSA is another Transportation Department agency experiencing deep furloughs, operating with only 49 percent of its full staff. While pipeline inspections are considered essential and so continue with unpaid staff, priorities that have ceased during the shutdown include staff responsible for pipeline enforcement policy, emergency response planning, hazardous materials standards and hazardous materials special investigations.

Pipeline development critics are especially furious that Sunoco and Energy Transfer announced on January 5 during the shutdown that a new liquified natural gas pipeline was now operational in eastern Pennsylvania. Josh Maxwell, mayor of Downington, Pa., told the regional Daily Local News of the opening of the Mariner East 2 Pipeline, “The fact that a dangerous natural gas liquids pipeline was allowed to become operational while PHMSA inspectors are furloughed, there is an active criminal investigation by the Chester County district attorney’s office, without a comprehensive emergency management plan in place, and after 92 serious [Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection] violations and counting shows a serious lack of oversight over Sunoco.”

The criminal investigation of Sunoco, initiated in December by District Attorney Tom Hogan, is focused on alleged wrongdoings relating to pipeline construction.

Food and Drug Administration

While much of the FDA’s work is funded through industry user fees, particularly from the pharmaceutical and medical device industries, the agency’s food inspection and regulatory enforcement efforts are funded through appropriations. This means that the FDA’s food safety efforts are especially impacted while 49 percent of the agency’s workers are furloughed in the shutdown, according to shutdown plans released by the Department of Health and Human Services.

While HHS says the FDA during the shutdown will “continue to address existing critical public health challenges, including drug shortages, and outbreaks related to foodborne illness and infectious diseases,” it emphasizes that the “FDA would be unable to support some routine regulatory and compliance activities. This includes some medical product, animal drug, and most food related activities. FDA will also pause routine establishment inspections, cosmetics and nutrition work, and many ongoing research activities” (emphasis added). The FDA is responsible for regulating 75 percent of the US food supply – everything except meat, poultry and some egg products.

Federal Aviation Administration

Forty percent of FAA staff are furloughed during the government shutdown – notably staff responsible for facility security inspections and law enforcement assistance support, according to the Transportation Department.

“The longer it goes without that oversight, the more dangerous the aviation system becomes,” Doug Lowe, president of the Florida chapter of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists (PASS) told Orlando’s ABC affiliate. Lowe continued: “A week from now, I would tell you, ‘Yes, I would not get on an aircraft.”

In an official statement, PASS National President Mike Perrone said, “The longer the shutdown goes on, the more likely the safety of the National Airspace System will be compromised.”

Compiled by Rick Claypool, research director for Public Citizen’s president’s office.