Post-shutdown back pay? Don’t bet on it

Lisa Rein / The Washington Post /


WASHINGTON — A government shutdown next week would jeopardize the paychecks of more than 800,000 federal workers who could be told to stay home. More than 2 million other employees who are deemed essential by the government — including the active military — would be entitled to their salaries but might not get paid on time.

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 would be delivered on time. If it drags on longer than two weeks, they would 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 would be paid Oct. 1 for the previous two weeks of work, but the following paycheck would be at risk if the government closure is prolonged.

If a shutdown lasts just a few days, it probably would 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.