A great many federal workers are still showing up on the job even though they have no expectation of getting paid on time. Few will argue that these people should get paid when the shutdown ends, if not sooner. But what about the hundreds of thousands who are not at work? Feelings are mixed about whether they should eventually be paid or not, though in reality, it’s all but certain they will be. With our federal budget severely strained, can we really afford to pay people who are not working?
According to Senate Majority leader Harry Reid it’s just plain mean to not allow them to work, whether or not we delay their pay. “It’s really cruel to tell workers they’ll receive back pay once the government opens and then refuse to open the government. Let’s open the government.” He said on the Senate floor, this sends the message they should “Stay home. Watch TV. Play chess. Whatever you want to do, because we won’t let you work.”
Of course, those people might prefer to sit the time out at home until the paychecks start flowing again.
Workers who are deemed essential are still working, with the promise of paychecks eventually. Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel said on Saturday Defense Department (DOD) employees will be exempt from the furlough and will return to work, with delayed pay. These civilian employees, said Hagel, provide essential support to military personnel and operations, making them exempt from furlough. DOD attorneys have determined this falls under the same legislation which is keeping uniformed military on the job, therefore they are essential.
The question of back pay for people not working has been just one part of the total budget debate. Virginia House member Jim Moran (D) argued, “It’s just wrong for hundreds of thousands of federal employees not to know whether they’re going to be able to make their mortgage payment. Many of them live from paycheck to paycheck.” Another House member said federal workers should not be turned into “collateral damage” in this debate.
With the shutdown in full force, the House met on Saturday, October 5th and voted unanimously (407-0) to pay these workers retroactively to October 1st. But a final word on the legislation will have to wait. On Friday NBCnews.com said the Senate was on fast track, eager to approve back pay. Yet in spite of the Senate’s cries of urgency to each a conclusion, they did not meet on Saturday to vote, unlike the House.
If back pay is approved – for no work done – the bill could be enormous. In the 1995-1996 shutdown, workers were paid more than $1 billion out of taxpayer pockets, for the time off.
After five full days of a shutdown, the consequences don’t seem all that dire. By Saturday, however, there were reports of some areas – private parks, scenic overlooks, and others – being forced to close even though they have no federal employees. This gives the appearance of panic in the fed. If the shutdown does not produce a sufficient plan, it could be that the public will begin to view the federal workforce as bloated, in need of a slim down.