CNN  — 

It’s a real catch-22.

As the partial government shutdown rolls on with no end in sight, many federal employees are scrambling to make ends meet. Some have turned to GoFundMe to raise money for living expenses.

More then 1,500 campaigns have been set up on the crowdfunding site by furloughed government employees looking for help, GoFundMe spokeswoman Katherine Cichy told CNN. Together, the campaigns so far have raised more than $300,000.

But these workers may be breaking federal ethics laws with their online fundraising. And the government office that could offer them some clarity on that is closed – because of the shutdown.

They could go to jail

The federal law the government employees might be running afoul of is part of the United States Code that deals with the salaries paid to government officials and employees, under a section called “Bribery, Graft and Conflicts of Interest.” In a nutshell, it says federal employees aren’t supposed to supplement their salaries with outside income.

If they do, the penalties could be steep.

Punishment could be up to five years in prison, the law states. Employees also could be fined up to $50,000 for each violation or the amount of the compensation they received, which ever amount is greater.

“The primary law in question is a criminal law that prohibits payments in exchange for an employee’s federal service,” Walter Shaub, the former director of the US Office of Government Ethics, told CNN.

The reasoning behind the law: A federal employee who accepts outside payments could be susceptible to improper influence that impacts how he or she does their job.

But it’s murky. If people are sending these employees money online primarily out of sympathy, that might be OK, Shaub said. But if people are sending money to them primarily because they’re federal workers, that could be a problem legally.

“It is entirely possible that the government would decide this conduct violates that law, so I personally would never have done something like this while I was in government,” said Shaub. “The potential penalties are quite severe.”

Many of the GoFundMe campaigns started popping up in early January, after it became clear that federal workers affected by the shutdown might start missing paychecks. People are asking for help to pay their rent or mortgage, to buy food or even purchase diapers for their infant children. If they have questions about the legality of the funds they receive this way, there’s no way to get an answer from the government right now.

‘They’re in such a tough position’

“The Office of Government Ethics could issue an opinion clarifying the government’s views on this, but that office is closed during the shutdown,” Shaub said. “A skeleton crew is still working on the ethics paperwork for the president’s nominees, but federal appropriations laws prohibit any of them other than the director himself from working on other issues. As with all Senate-confirmed appointees, the director is still getting paid and can keep working, but he doesn’t have his team of lawyers to help him.”

Many employees probably don’t even know that the GoFundMe payments could be legally problematic.

“All new federal employees are supposed to receive ethics training, but that’s a relatively new requirement in the past few years, so employees who have been around longer than that may not have had ethics training,” Shaub said. “The bottom line is that this is high-risk behavior that, sadly, could potentially land them in very serious trouble. I feel so bad for these (federal workers). They’re in such a tough position. My heart is with them, and I’d hate to see them get fired or worse.”

So if the GoFundMe pages set up by the federal workers are indeed on shaky ground legally, would these employees have to give the money back when the partial government shutdown is over?

CNN reached out to the Office of Government Ethics for an answer to that question, but emails and phone calls went unreturned because the office is closed due to the government shutdown.

CNN’s Konstantin Toropin contributed to this report.