For members of Congress, it’s crunch time to come up with a budget solution to keep the government open or risk a shutdown come Friday.
The House of Representatives has a vote set for Tuesday afternoon on a renewed continuing resolution to keep the government open after the current stopgap bill expires on Nov. 17.
The new fiscal year began on Oct. 1.
Newly minted House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., proposed a hybrid solution that would avoid a total shutdown by continuing funding for some agencies through Jan. 19 and others until Feb. 2, the Associated Press reported. The idea has drawn criticism from the White House, per a statement from Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre who called the measure “unserious.”
Though agencies are still a few days out from knowing whether a shutdown seems imminent, federal employees are used to this seemingly annual exercise. One of the more pressing concerns is whether civil servants will be paid if their agencies are forced to pare down operations.
The existing stopgap bill that’s keeping agencies funded at last year’s levels expires one day before the current two-week pay period ends.
That means a lapse in funding beginning Saturday wouldn’t impact paychecks for the Nov. 5 to Nov. 18 period, and processing for those checks should be completed as normal. However, employees who work on Saturday may not see those hours reflected in their paystub if a lapse occurs.
How long a government shutdown would last is impossible to predict, but if it happens, the first paychecks that could be missed would be for the Nov. 19 to Dec. 2 pay period.
The federal government has experienced 14 shutdowns since 1980. In 2018, even when only some departments were shuttered by the 34-day shutdown, an estimated 380,000 employees were furloughed and an additional 420,000 reported to work without pay.
“Over two million people in all 50 states work for the federal government,” according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. “Missed paychecks can put financial stress on their households and have a ripple effect that hurts local economies across the U.S.”
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, for example, estimated that nearly three in four employees would be required to continue working without pay during a shutdown.
Similarly, service members would report for duty but would not receive paychecks until after a budget is passed, Military Times reported.
Though federal law guarantees civil servants will receive back pay, it’s a question of how soon they will be made whole, though agencies are instructed to issue checks “as soon as possible after the lapse in appropriations ends, regardless of scheduled pay date.”
Shutdowns can put strain on the government’s payroll centers that collectively process wages for millions of government workers, especially if there’s a lot of back pay owed.
Federal Times reported in 2018 that the shutdown disrupted disbursement for those who received their money from the Interior Business Center, which includes employees at agencies like NASA.
According to their shutdown guidance, the centers — which includes the IBC, the General Services Administration’s payroll processor, and the National Finance Center — are able to work on payroll processing with agencies that are not affected by a lapse.
For example, in 2018, the NFC remained open in part because it does not rely on money from Congress to operate. Instead, it relies on users fees and available working capital funds.
Generally, “exempt” employees can continue to work and be paid because they’re funded independently from the annual appropriations process.
Agencies are also permitted to retain staff to wrap up payroll processing before shutting down. And if an agency doesn’t have funds but it processes payroll for those that do, it may continue that work to support them, according to the White House’s 2021 guidance.
As the Thanksgiving holiday nears, lapse-affected employees may also not receive holiday pay until after the government reopens.
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.