Tens of thousands of government workers are returning to work. They’re just not being paid.
The State Department, which had furloughed most of its diplomats, called them back to service starting next week and suggested it would somehow be “taking steps to make additional funds available to pay employee salaries.” They won’t be paid for the time they’ve been furloughed until after the shutdown ends, according to a statement on State’s website.
While State somehow found money to pay its workers, they’ll join tens of thousands of IRS agents, thousands of FAA safety inspectors and hundreds of FDA safety inspectors who were also called back to work this week, joining the hundreds of thousands already reporting for duty for their government jobs each day but not getting paid.
Repeat: Hundreds of thousands of Americans will have worked the last two weeks and will get a $0.00 paycheck.
The Trump administration continues to scramble to blunt the effects of the shutdown, which President Donald Trump once said he would be proud to own.
Bringing services back online means Americans are getting most of the services of government, they’re just not currently paying for them at the moment.
President Trump did sign legislation Wednesday that promises back pay for workers furloughed or working without pay during the shutdown. Others, like contractors who are not performing duties, could be left out.
With no end in sight and no serious talks with Democrats on Capitol Hill underway, the shutdown is bearing down on the month-long marker. That’s multiple pay periods for people who are not rich. Those who aren’t left on furlough, but rather working, can’t collect unemployment. They can’t find side jobs if they’re doing their day jobs.
Shutdown is not a technical term but a political one. The federal bureaucracy and Congress prefer to call what we’re seeing right now a “lapse in government funding” or a “funding gap.”
That doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily as “shutdown,” but at this point it’s probably more accurate given the administration appears to be not hemmed in by specific guidelines. When it appears the shutdown will inflict pain, they simply deem a new set of workers essential or find a new pot of money to keep an office open, as they did with a separate set of IRS workers who process income verification queries for mortgage companies, or Interior Department employees keeping a proposal for new oil drilling on schedule.
The $5.6 billion Trump wants for his wall and other border security efforts is but a small fraction of the money the impasse is holding up, which would be used to fund about a quarter of the government. The affected agencies include nine Cabinet agencies (Justice, Interior, Homeland Security, Labor, Agriculture, Transportation, State, Treasury and Commerce) along with smaller independent agencies from the FDA and EPA to the Smithsonian and NASA. Other key agencies like the Pentagon already have funding, and most of the social safety net, like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, gets its funding automatically.
It was only ever really a quarter of the government affected by the shutdown. And more than half of the affected workers from the start were expected to work without pay. That ratio has grown as the shutdown has carried on and more workers have been called back to the job.
Democratic administrations, which entered shutdowns in the 1990s and 2013, tried to drive home the pain of missing government services.
The opposite is true now, as the Trump administration reclassifies employees from furloughed to essential or excepted from furlough at will.
As CNN’s Greg Wallace reported after a conversation with Alice Rivlin, who was OMB director during the Clinton administration, the administration has fairly wide latitude to determine what governmental functions are essential or can be suspended.
“The law itself is pretty vague,” Rivlin said. “In the end it’s a judgment call.”
She said she believes the Trump administration is showing more concern about effects to the public at large than to federal workers.
So have the courts, for now. A federal judge rejected a lawsuit brought by air traffic controllers and other government employees citing the Antideficiency Act. Separate lawsuits are in the works, including one that cites the 13th Amendment, which is the Amendment that ended slavery and “involuntary servitude.”
There have been some good explainers, such as this one in The Washington Post, about the tension between the Anti-Deficiency Act, which requires the government not to spend money that hasn’t been appropriated, and the Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires the government to pay its workers.
All of this says nothing of the army of contractors – from the low-paid janitor to the high-paid executive – who subsist on federal contracts. Those people, particularly those with smaller paychecks who are least able to weather through a lapse in funds, are unlikely to see back pay if their contractor isn’t currently paying them.
CoreCivic is a major contractor for the Justice Department that performs essential duties related to inmates and prisons and holds hundreds of millions of dollars worth of shutdowns, said they will continue to fulfill obligations, both to the government and their workers.
“Our company is dedicated to supporting both our government partners and our staff during the shutdown,” said Amanda Gilchrist, CoreCivic’s director of public affairs in an email. But they expect to ultimately be paid and have continued to pay their workers. “Our government partners have indicated that our contracts are considered essential government services, meaning we are to remain open, but that payment will be delayed until the government reopens.”