While there is no law requiring that nonessential employees be compensated if they are ordered off the job, Congress has in the past voted to reimburse their losses once shutdowns ended.
But this go-round could be different. The bitterly divided Congress includes many lawmakers who are unsympathetic to the plight of federal workers and could be loath to help them recoup their money.
“It’s a very different time and a very different Congress,” said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 150,000 federal workers. “I’m concerned when employees who were here remember that last time employees were paid and think it will happen again, because it’s not a given at all.”
After the past two shutdowns, in the 1990s – when federal workers were furloughed for five days in November 1995 and 21 days from December of that year into January – Congress passed a bill awarding them back pay.
Even if Congress fails to resolve its budget standoff by the deadline Monday and much of the government runs out of money, civilian and military personnel who are considered vital to national security, public safety, health and welfare would be called to work – about 1.3 million civilian employees and 1.4 million in the military.
By law, they all must be paid. But the law does not say when.
If a shutdown ends within their two-week pay cycle, their checks still will be delivered on time. If it drags on longer than two weeks, they will work without being paid for a time.
All active-duty members of the military, for instance, are paid on the 1st and 15th of the month. Even if there is a shutdown, they will be paid Tuesday for the previous two weeks of work, but the following paycheck will be at risk if the government closure is prolonged.
If a shutdown lasts just a few days, it probably will not affect paychecks that are scheduled for mid-October. But even the government’s heavily automated payroll system needs several days’ notice to set its gears in motion, so if a shutdown ended a day or two before paychecks at a given agency are due, those employees deemed “essential” could have their pay delayed, several union and government officials said.
Compared with the shutdowns of the 1990s, many more federal workers are in danger of being furloughed this year, because Congress has not passed a single funding bill. In the past, Congress had passed appropriations bills that funded various large agencies, including the Defense Department, meaning they could continue to operate even if other parts of the government could not.
Federal agencies have started bracing for a shutdown by digging out their plans from 2011, when the government almost ran out of money amid fiscal battles between Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill.
On Monday, agencies began reviewing which civilians would be told to come to work during a shutdown and which would be ordered to stay home. Defense Department spokesman George Little said overseas operations, including those in Afghanistan, would not be directly affected.
“The President and the secretary know that the uncertainty of the current situation puts our civilian workforce in a difficult situation and, should a lapse occur, it could impose hardships on many employees and disrupt important national security projects,” Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter wrote Monday in a memo to Defense Department employees.
Attached was a lengthy series of questions and answers prepared by the Office of Personnel Management in 2011 about how pay, vacation, health insurance and other benefits would be affected during a shutdown.
Steven Posner, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget, said in a statement Monday night that there is “enough time for Congress to prevent a lapse in appropriations, and the administration is willing to work with Congress” to enact a short-term spending plan to fund critical government operations while lawmakers work on a budget for fiscal 2014.
But if there’s no temporary budget by late this week, federal workers will get an email or phone call by Monday telling them to report for work or remain at home.
Almost half of the federal workforce has already been forced to take multiple unpaid furlough days this year, the result of an earlier Washington showdown that set into motion $85 billion in automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.