As Congress debates over funding the government for next year and another COVID-19 stimulus bill, the possibility of a partial government shutdown has arisen.
Congress passed another stopgap funding bill to fund the government through the weekend so negotiations can continue over a coronavirus relief measure.
In the event that there is a shutdown, how does this impact pay for federal employees?
The answer is that it depends on what Congress does. In order for federal employees to get back pay for a shutdown, Congress has to authorize it. This often happens, but it is not guaranteed.
One of our readers brought to my attention that OPM’s Guidance for Shutdown Furloughs document has not been updated to reflect the new law which governs pay for federal employees in the event of a shutdown. Per a law enacted in 2019, “employees of the federal government or a District of Columbia public employer who are furloughed or required to work during a lapse in appropriations beginning on or after December 22, 2018, [are required] to be compensated for the period of the lapse.” In other words, back pay for furloughed and essential federal workers will be guaranteed under this law in the event of another shutdown.
If the shutdown is brief and only lasts through the weekend, the good news for federal employees is that the impacts would probably be minimal, at least in comparison to one that goes on for weeks.
In guidance OPM issued after the last shutdown ended on January 25, 2019, the agency said this regarding pay for excepted employees:
An excepted employee who performed work during the lapse in appropriations may be paid for that work. The “standard rate of pay” for excepted hours of work is the pay the employee is entitled to for actual hours of work under the normally applicable pay rules. For example, if an excepted employee performed additional overtime work beyond the normal requirements for his or her job, he/she would be paid for that actual overtime work. All excepted hours of work are time in a pay status for pay, leave, and benefit purposes.
Presumably, any scenario with another shutdown would work the same way. OPM would issue any necessary guidance with details after any shutdown that takes place gets resolved.
The Office of Personnel Management has standing general guidance on shutdown furloughs on its website to address many common questions federal employees are likely to have when partial government shutdowns occur.
Why Does the Government “Shut Down?”
The concept of a government “shutdown” is relatively new and did not exist before 1980. Since the concept was enacted, they have become something often used as political leverage when both parties spar over some issue and threaten to withhold funding for agencies, hoping the other side will cave. Obviously, this scenario leaves federal employees stuck in the middle who may end up at home furloughed and wondering when their next paycheck will arrive.
As FedSmith author Ralph Smith noted in a previous article, Benjamin Civiletti, the attorney general under President Jimmy Carter, is credited for inventing the concept of the modern shutdown. It is based on an interpretation of an 1870 law. For details, see Who Invented Government Shutdowns?.