A Primer on Federal Pay and Benefits in Case the Government Shuts Down Again

Flickr user James Marvin Phelps

The government probably won’t shut down this fall. But if it does, we thought a refresher on how shutdowns affect federal employees’ pay and benefits would be useful.

When Congress returns to Washington next week, its top priority will be to pass legislation keeping the government open past Sept. 30, the last day of fiscal 2014. This is familiar territory: Everything is on the table, including a short-term continuing resolution funding agencies into December after the November mid-term congressional elections, followed by another CR during the lame-duck session taking the government into early 2015. Appropriators also have said they could try to craft an omnibus package funding multiple agencies; it’s also possible lawmakers craft a ‘mini-bus’ that includes several agencies, and pass other stand-alone appropriations for large departments like Defense.

Still, at least one vocal Republican lawmaker -- Rep. Steve King of Iowa -- has said legislation keeping the government open could be at risk if President Obama tackles immigration reform through executive order, which he has repeatedly said he will do.

The fiscal 2015 appropriations process started off strong, but has been stymied by controversial debates over amendments and the politics of an election year. The House so far has managed to pass seven of 12 fiscal 2015 spending bills; the Senate has not passed any yet. The House-passed fiscal 2015 appropriations bills are: Commerce, Justice, Science; Defense; Energy and Water; Financial Services and General Government; Legislative Branch; Military Construction and Veterans; and Transportation/Housing and Urban Development.

In the event we have a repeat of October 2013, when much of the government was shuttered for 16 days, here’s what federal workers should keep in mind regarding their pay and benefits:

  • Salaries: Agencies must pay excepted and exempted employees for the days they work during a shutdown, though they won’t see that pay until after the shutdown ends. If you’re furloughed during a shutdown, there is no guarantee you will be paid, since it’s up to Congress. However, Congress has always approved back pay for federal workers furloughed during shutdowns.
  • Bonuses: Agencies can give out performance awards during a shutdown, which will be paid to employees when funds are available.
  • Unemployment Compensation: Furloughed federal workers could be eligible for unemployment compensation, depending on where they live.
  • Health care: Furloughed employees are still covered under the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program during a shutdown. As for employees’ biweekly FEHBP contributions to their premiums, that will accumulate during the shutdown and be deducted from their pay when they return to work. Employees cannot temporarily halt their FEHBP enrollment while in non-pay status. As for the Federal Employees Dental and Vision Insurance Program, workers furloughed for two consecutive pay periods will receive a bill in the mail for their FEDVIP coverage and will have to pay it if they want to keep their insurance.
  • Retirement benefits: Retirees in both the Civil Service Retirement System and the Federal Employees Retirement System will receive their annuity benefits during a shutdown. Furloughed employees enrolled in the Thrift Savings Plan will not contribute to their accounts during their nonpay status and their agency contributions will stop during that time. Once the shutdown is over and funds are available, contributions will resume and employees will receive retroactive benefits. Click here for TSP’s guidance during a government shutdown.
  • Leave: Employees cannot use paid leave instead of taking an unpaid furlough day during a government shutdown. Previously scheduled sick or annual leave days will be canceled if the government closes.

Click here to read (re-read) the full government shutdown guidance on federal pay and benefits from the Office of Personnel Management published last fall.

A government shutdown is pretty unlikely at this point, given last year’s 16-day closure, which even House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, blamed on the Republicans, and the upcoming elections. So, federal workers shouldn’t panic. Congress has a much stronger incentive for keeping the government open in 2014 than it did in 2013: job security.

(Image via Flickr user James Marvin Phelps)

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