Government Shutdown: Are Federal Workers at Risk?

By on September 19, 2013 in Current Events with 39 Comments

The looming possibility of a government shutdown is getting more and more media attention as the end of the month approaches. But just how likely is a shutdown to affect the federal workforce?

The International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) recently sent a letter to OMB director Sylvia Burwell expressing opposition to a shutdown out of concern for the impact it would have on federal workers. The union was obbviously opposed to a shutdown, but it focused especially on pushing for back pay for any federal workers who are impacted should there ultimately be a shutdown. Clearly, the union wanted to get as much of a jumpstart on minimizing the threat as possible.

While a shutdown sounds ominous, a recent AP story paints a different picture of what one actually entails, saying that there would, in fact, be no shutdown as a practical matter with respect to its impact on the day-to-day operations of the government. “Fewer than half of the 2.1 million federal workers subject to it would be forced off the job if the Obama administration follows the rules followed by previous Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton,” according to the article.

Federal workers are exempted from furloughs if their jobs are related to national security or if they perform essential activities that “protect life and property.”

The article offered some additional specifics on which employees might be (and might not be) affected:

The air traffic control system, food inspection, Medicare, veterans’ health care and many other essential government programs would run as usual. The Social Security Administration would not only send out benefits but would continue to take applications. The Postal Service, which is self-funded, would keep delivering the mail. The Federal Emergency Management Agency could continue to respond to disasters at the height of hurricane season.

The Washington Monument would be closed. But it’s been closed anyway since an earthquake in 2011.

Museums along the National Mall would close, too. National parks would be closed to visitors, a loss often emphasized in shutdown discussions.

The Capitol would remain open, however. Congress is deemed essential, despite its abysmal poll ratings.

The article also said that the real concern shouldn’t be the shutdown, but rather the possibility of the government running out of money if the debt ceiling isn’t raised as this would be more likely to directly impact the American public and the federal workforce: “While the Treasury Department probably would make interest payments to bondholders to prevent a catastrophic default on the debt, it wouldn’t be able to make other payments on time, which would mean delays in Social Security benefits and in paychecks for federal workers and troops in the field.” (emphasis added)

For those federal employees that are impacted by a shutdown, what about getting backpay? The honest answer is nobody knows until after the fact what would happen.

The shutdown of 1995-1996 resulted in federal workers who were impacted getting backpay for missed work days which sets a favorable precedent going forward. However, a recent article in Government Executive that quoted Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, painted a less rosy picture, saying that the current members in Congress cannot be counted on to be as lenient on the federal workforce this time around. “We’ve never had a group of people this extreme, who have the kind of power these guys have,” said Lilly.

Regardless of what the shutdown standoff going on in Congress ultimately leads to, we will continue to keep you informed as new events unfold.

© 2016 Ian Smith. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Ian Smith.

About the Author

Ian Smith is one of the co-founders of He enjoys writing about current topics that affect the federal workforce. Ian also has a background in web development and does the technical work for the web site and its sibling sites.

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  1. Pat Pitters says:

    I am really ticked off right now at SSD! My case was Fully Favorable by a Admin Judge but SS called me on Monday and told me that they had to get with OPM about my disability retirement in 2010. He also told me it could be 90-120 days…OMG! I have waited two years for just the Admin Judge and now I have to wait more??? It blows my mind!! any suggestions…and yes I do have an attorney.

    • Yolanda Escalante says:

      I feel badly for you Especially if federal employees are furloughed, they won’t be allowed to work – which means thanks to your congressmen, you’ll do without any monies for longer than 90-120 days. So, if you want to let your voice be heard…write your congressman and tell him how unfair this is to you as well as the federal employees who want you to be paid!

    • HappilyRetiredFed says:

      Sounds like they need proof from OPM. Certain federal pensions (retirement, disability, federal workers comp) may cause a reduction in SSDI payments if social security was never withheld. It’s called WEP (Winfall Elimination Provision) and it could cause your SSDI benefits to be reduced. They want to avoid overpaying you and just need proof of your disability retirement payments. If you have any documents you can take them to a local SSA office, it may save some time.

  2. ee-lee says:

    Since there has not in fact been a Federal budget in 5 years how can the Affordable Care Act (Obama Care) be de-funded. Seems like nothing has actually been funded for quite some time now.Seems like we have more than enough Federal Laws to last us a good long while so the morons in Congress need to do their jobs and pass a Federal budget instead of flapping their gums and pointing fingers./

  3. Unitedwemuststandorfall says:

    Enough is enough. Again, our incompetent Congress will use its people and civil servants, many of whom risk their lives every day, as political pawns. The other 98% of America must stand together against them on every election at every level, in every state. It is the only way this country can return to a “country for the people, by the people”. The days of being misled, fed propaganda, and following like sheep or herds of cattle must come to an end if we wish to thrive again. Vote out every INCUMBENT Republican and Democrat who has served more than 1 term (2 or 4 year – whichever applies) OUT!!! Then demand that TWO laws. One: NO MORE MONEY CAN BE “BORROWED” FROM SOCIAL SECURITY, under ANY circumstance, without a vote by all American citizens. Two: NO MORE FUNDING OF THE GOV’T DURING A CONGRESS INDUCED SHUTDOWN USING THE RETIREMENT FUNDS OF MILITARY AND/OR CIVIL SERVANTS.

    • marathon says:

      Hi Unitedwemuststandorfall

  4. McCurrlly Outtzhappinn says:

    Yes! I am at risk of getting a bunch of extra additional vacation time off! Can’t Wait! Please make it happen! Looking forward to enjoying every minute of all the extra vacation time off!!! Yahooooeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!!!!! Hope the shutdown lasts at least several weeks!

    • Yolanda Escalante says:

      having lived thru the last furlough….believe me…you will not be kicking up your heels, IF you do get paid upon returning to work after being furloughed! So if you’re thinking that this will be a vacation…think again…when you do return to work..everything will a priority due to the fact that work went undone and deadlines weren’t met! You’ll work twice as hard as you did before the furlough, and you will never make up for the loss of pay & having been there…you will never recoup in pay due to the furlough as any back pay will be combined with your regular paycheck (when you do get one) & will be taxed big time. So you go ahead and kick up your heels, but you’ll be crying in your beer when all is said and done!

  5. WAS says:

    This is typical media hype, just like they did with the sequestration, first, the media fueled the fires of a horrendous furlough plan, but in the end, furloughs were reduced as the agencies “found the funds”. The government cannot shut down completely, the results would be catastrophic . As usual, there will be compromises and negotiations…….business as usual.

  6. mandinka says:

    The House has done their job today and passed a CR that will fund the govt thru Dec. If the Senate approves the bill, and Obama signs it then the problem is temporarily solved

    • IT Lady says:

      What do you mean they’ve done their job? A CR is not their job. Their job is to have a budget in place before the end of the fiscal year. Congress hasn’t done its job in a very long time! I don’t think they know what their job is!

  7. Steve Neal says:

    We feds just need to get together and vote their “political butts” out of office. More welfare and higher taxes are how we got here, and doubling medical insurance fees are our future if we don’t stop them right now. We federal workers will continue to get the short-stick (Pay freezes, no annual raise, furloughs…) when the gov’t spends more than it brings in. That’s just “Math 101″…

  8. HappilyRetiredFed says:

    I spent 40 years at SSA. Since I was considered “essential” there was no threat of shutdown for us. It was business as usual. The biggest threat was having our paychecks delayed and being able to pay our bills on time. What kind of a government lays this kind of stress on their employees year after year? Since Congress has such a low approval rating I don’t expect them to be “lenient” if they don’t have to be.

    • SamIamTwo says:

      So far I do not see any difference in essential and non-essential employees under Obama. His sequester that he worked up does not differentiate. A political ploy to make the public feel the pain and to place blame the GOP.

      Yes under previous presidents, essential employees came to work. As a DoD contracting officer, I was determined to be essential.

      In the 70’s they said the door was shutting on DoD. We combined CMD and DCASR to reduce the work force, BRAC the bases, combined DFAS to reduce the workforce. Fired, yes fired GM14’s and GM13’s, pushed for bonuses to retire the clingers…fired the dead wood via documented improvement plans. First placed on 90 day notices and then put on PIP plans IAW OPM regulation. A lot of work but they scrambled for other jobs elsewhere, and some were let go.

      We went paperless, all contracts are online and secure, with back up. All solicitations are online…in doing so, we freed up employees to find other jobs. LOL

      Our biggest problem was contracting out essential labor skills that we should have kept in-house.

      I don’t see the other social, economical and environmental agencies doing the same.

      • theinnerring says:

        sequester is not the same as a shut down in regards to essential vs non-essential.

        • SamIamTwo says:

          I know and Obama could have set it up so as not to harm people. But he wanted the private sector to feel the pain…and I would not put it past him to apply the same standard even though it should only be non-essential during a shut down.

      • JollyRoger says:

        I currently work for SSA and what HappilyRetiredFed said is true. Even last year as we faced a shutdown, field office employees were deemed essential and would have gone to work. There is a difference between essential and non-essential employees under Obama.

        • SamIamTwo says:

          Yes, I understand but do you trust your/our president not to tweak it to make the public feel some pain?

          I am retired DoD contracting officer and have never seen this kind of abuse of presidential powers via Executive Orders. EOs are only meant to be used where the intent of the existing public law is vague. In the day, even the GS12s who the EO affected their work could object when the law was clear or there was no law that the EO addressed. Anyone doing that today?

          I am so glad I retired in 2007, I could not imagine trying to manage contracts on a quarterly bases due to CRs for the past 5 years…Mods, letters, it’s gotta be one big time-waster for the procurement offices.

          Pandora’s box has been opened and the liberals better be aware that if a conservative becomes president he/she too could abuse the Executive Branch.

          I would have been fired in a heart beat if I violated the anti-deficiency act…and Obama has done that on more than one occasion…trust the man yet?

          Have you seen the new HUD law that socially engineers integration, via the housing market? Start up cost 1.6T. No one is paying attention to spending.

          My father did over 50 years in DoD, he has a plaque signed by President Reagan. My son has 7 years as a Border Patrol Agent…we are a family of servants.

          If he is smart he will let it roll as it is set up…if he tweaks it to make a point, I would not put it past the man…would you? It’s not like his actions so far mirror his words.

          And I have been thru shut downs in the past and I know how it is suppose to go. But simply put I do not trust the president not to pull a rabbit out of his butter.

          Simply put I have my suspicions based on the President’s past actions…again YES I know how the shut down process is suppose to work. And they prob have sent you emails telling you what they told me…the first shut down no one knew who was or was not essential or non-essential…the form (I forget the number form 52?) had contracting officers as non-essential but we became essential as contractors would have been harmed…I guess all of the paper work has now been fixed to designate who is essential and who is not? I’ll call OPM and make sure only documented non-essential are shut down, so says the shield of people standing around the president???

    • LVRichardson says:

      “What kind of a government lays this kind of stress on their employees year after year?” Seriously? Count your blessings and be grateful you had such a fine, secure job for 40 years! And you now have a fine, secure retirement. Good lord. The other 95% of the working people of this country have no chance of having it so good. They can show up for work, only to find their business shut down, and the last two weeks unpaid, as just happened to a large number of Papa John Pizza store employees, just last week. 🙁 I am forever grateful for my job and for the taxpayers who pay my salary. I don’t take this for granted.

      • HappilyRetiredFed says:

        In 1970 I was working at a department store during the Christmas season. Some of us were kept on and some of us were let go after Christmas. I was one of those who were let go after Christmas. I am glad I filed the application at SSA or I would have been without work. People have choices. It’s a shame about the Papa John employees but I had no part in what happened. I was not in the upper echelon at SSA. People in my position were treated poorly at times. New employees are put on probation for technical jobs and can be let go at any time.

  9. italics says:

    Talking about those government workers in DC who will keep working makes it sound like that is the only place where the government has employees. There are 50 states, each with a large number of federal employees that will be without work or paycheck. Congress and the President has held the federal workforce hostage for 3 years and we are going to start cutting off fingers and toes to make a point of meet my demands or else? I’m tired of being the pawn in their games. It won’t help either party come election day.

  10. Keeg says:

    Please, maybe it happens and maybe it does not. If it does, and you are prepared then the results are mitigated to some extent.

    However, if you are like most people and living paycheck to paycheck this royally blows.

    I suggest you write to your inbred elected royalty and DEMAND they put aside political differences for the good of the whole country and not to score points for whatever political party they are from.

  11. NoDonkey says:

    It’s appalling that not even a few weeks after a rampage that left 12 federal workers dead, that Congress would even consider withholding pay from the survivors at the Navy Yard.

    • Charles says:

      While I agree with your basic sentiment, one can only have their pay withheld if they have performed work.. In the event of a shutdown, no work would be performed, hence theere is no pay to be withheld.

      • NoDonkey says:

        So Congress needs to keep their place of work open, not slam the door on their faces.
        Just like the furlough, the work will ultimately get done, because people will work longer hours to do it and not get paid for it. We have a Congress full of deadbeats.

      • Dan Diego says:

        Actually, that’s not correct. Essential peronnel WILL work and will NOT be paid.
        From recent directives (that you can find all over the interweb):

        Employees in all three branches of government are vulnerable to furlough, or temporary unpaid leave, although each agency makes its own final decisions, according to a report last month by the Congressional Research Service.

        However, some high-level employees, such as the president and presidential appointees, are not subject to furlough. Other so-called “essential” workers must work during a shutdown, some with and others without pay.

        For example, exempt workers include those whose work is critical for national security or public health and safety, such as air traffic controllers and border security agents, according to federal guidance.

        Affected workers may be able to receive pay retroactively, as has happened after past shutdowns, but such payments are not guaranteed, CRS staff said.

      • Sandra says:

        Sorry, but my husband will be working at Social Security for free. Yes when and if they pass a continuing resolution (forget an actual budget) they might decide to pay them, but staying home is not an option. Too important to stop working, not important enough to pay.

  12. irdeggman says:

    “While a shutdown sounds ominous, a recent AP story paints a different picture of what one actually entails, saying that there would, in fact, be no shutdown as a practical matter with respect to its impact on the day-to-day operations of the government. “Fewer than half of the 2.1 million federal workers subject to it would be forced off the job if the Obama administration follows the rules followed by previous Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton,” according to the article.”
    Is very misleading. During the fiscal cliff near shutdown – the numbers were quite different – basically the reverse. Up until midnight the night before all non-critical workers were told to turn in all of the government communication equipment (because they could not use it if the shutdown happened). All of my coworkers were sweating over losing money and of not being able to adequately support the fleet.
    There are 2 different things happening here. One is the budget shutdown – which has slightly more options when keeping people from having to go home without pay, the other is the debt ceiling which has almost no options/exceptions to sending people home. These events are going to occur almost back-to-back (about 2 weeks between them).

    Also there is a different type of congress in play now then in the past. The odds of getting any “back pay” for a shutdown are pretty small.

    • FedupFed says:

      If there is no budget….there is no pay. Some will stay home and have some extra time off from their work. Others will be asked to work with no pay until idiots voted into office do their jobs and pass a budget.

      • irdeggman says:

        More people are covered under the no-budget exemptions than are covered under the no money (i.e., debt ceiling reached) conditions.
        Those who are asked to work will be paid afterwards, basically they are promised a check in the future. So it is not really working with no pay, even though it feels like it.

        • TheRealOldFed says:

          Well, I don’t think the mortgage company or utility companies are willing to wait for “payment sometime in the future.” Federal employees aren’t rich. We are middle class and need our paychecks to pay for living expenses. First the furloughs, which cost us over 20 percent in salary for 3 months, now we are being held hostage once again. VOTE THEM ALL OUT! We need a Congress of REASONABLE people that understand the word COMPROMISE, not hardcase idealogues who are so rich they don’t care if the common workers get paid or not.

      • mandinka says:

        Obama said he won’t relent