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What’s the deal with the government shutdown threat?

On Behalf of | Oct 2, 2023 | Employee Rights

Crisis narrowly averted. For now. At the time of writing, Congress just passed a temporary budget, funding the government for 45 days. While this stop-gap measure prevented an immediate shutdown, many wonder if we won’t find ourselves in the same situation within the next several weeks.

Indeed, in recent years, the government has flirted with shutdowns on a shockingly routine basis. All this gives us reason to look at the history of government shutdowns. It’s also good reason for federal employees to understand their rights should we hit another shutdown.

What is a government shutdown?

Congress must pass legislation to fund the federal government. If Congress fails to establish funding by the deadline, federal agencies must cease their spending or “shut down.”

Notably, this does not mean that federal employees will all stop working. Instead, federal agencies will “except” certain individuals to continue working without pay. Other employees will continue working if their agencies are self-funded or have funding available outside of the annual appropriations. Agencies will then furlough the remaining workers, sending them home without pay.

How common are government shutdowns?

The United States had not encountered a government funding gap or shutdown prior to 1976. Since then, funding disputes have triggered shutdowns nearly every four years.

As the History Channel notes, the history of government shutdowns traces back to the Congressional Budget Act of 1974. That’s when Congress first gave itself strict deadlines for passing federal budgets. Two years later, we hit the nation’s first funding gap, but it did not lead to a shutdown. Then, in 1981, Reagan vetoed a funding bill and triggered the first shutdown. Altogether, we saw 10 shutdowns between 1981 and 2019.

Recently, we were within hours of another shutdown, but Congress narrowly avoided shutting down the government by passing a temporary budget. It remains to be seen whether Congress can pass a full budget ahead of its new deadline.

How many are affected?

Nearly everyone in the federal government is affected by a government shutdown. While many excepted employees will continue to work, they will do so without pay. Agencies will furlough many more.

Each agency creates a contingency plan that says how it plans to respond to a potential shutdown. As the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) notes on its shutdown overview:

  • The Social Security Administration would furlough 8,500 employees and demand that 52,000 excepted employees continue to work without pay.
  • The Department of Defense would furlough 440,000 civilian employees and except 199,000. Another 166,000 receive funding outside of annual appropriations. They would work and get paid as usual.
  • NASA would furlough 17,000 employees and except 1,300.

Meanwhile, the interruption of government services would have repercussions beyond federal paychecks. Some have claimed that the disruption caused by a shutdown could negatively affect the entire United States economy. It could also interfere with our international relations and defense efforts.

What are my rights during a shutdown?

The main question for most federal employees during a shutdown is, “When will I get paid?” The answer is, “After the shutdown ends.”

Thanks to the Government Employee Fair Treatment Act of 2019, the nation has a legal duty to repay excepted and furloughed employees for the work they performed or missed during a shutdown.

  • Repayment is based upon the employees’ standard rate of pay.
  • The law requires repayment at the “earliest date possible […] regardless of scheduled pay dates.”

Meanwhile, excepted employees may continue to use their approved leave during a shutdown. Or, if they wish, agencies may choose to place those employees on furlough during the periods of their approved leave.

Furloughed employees may file for unemployment benefits per their states’ guidelines. If employees receive unemployment, they will need to follow state and federal guidelines for repaying those funds once they receive their backpay.

Let’s hope Congress gets its act together

Only time will tell if Congress can meet its new budget deadline. Or the budget deadline after that. Our nation remains sharply divided along political lines. History teaches us that those divisions lead to shutdowns roughly once every four years.

Hopefully, this time, we will be spared the theatrics and threat of a shutdown. We want our leaders to learn from this near miss and find a better way forward. We expect better from our nation’s lawmakers, and our nation’s federal workforce deserves better.


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