Government Shutdown: Are Federal Workers at Risk?

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 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.

About the Author

Ian Smith is one of the co-founders of He enjoys writing about current topics that affect the federal workforce.