Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., says federal employees "should not have to suffer" if Congress can't reach a deal to keep government open.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., says federal employees "should not have to suffer" if Congress can't reach a deal to keep government open. Cliff Owen/AP

Democratic Lawmakers Support Retroactive Pay for Shutdown Furloughs

Back pay would not be guaranteed for ‘nonessential’ personnel if government closes.

This story has been updated. 

Two Democratic lawmakers with oversight over the federal workforce have called on Congress not to victimize civil servants in the event of a government shutdown.

While the Senate moved forward with a stopgap spending measure Friday afternoon that would keep the government open until Nov. 15, the continuing resolution’s fate was less clear in the House. Congress has until Monday evening to pass a bill to keep government open.

With the clock ticking down for Congress to act, the probability that agencies will shutter their doors come Tuesday morning -- forcing hundreds of thousands of civilian employees to stay home without pay -- continues to grow. Excepted feds required to work during a shutdown are guaranteed retroactive pay once regular appropriations or a continuing resolution is passed. For furloughed employees, however, Congress must decide whether to issue the back pay.  

While passing a spending bill remains lawmakers’ top priority, some want to ensure federal employees are protected if the government shuts down.

“Shutting down the government is never a good option and I sincerely hope it can be avoided,” Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, told Government Executive. “But in the unfortunate event of a shutdown, Congress shouldn’t add insult to injury by denying federal employees their back pay for a period when the government finances are on hold. Far too often, federal workers have become a political target, and the men and women of the federal workforce shouldn’t have to forfeit their salary just because Congress can’t do its job and come to an agreement to fund the government in a timely manner.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said federal workers should not be a tool for Republican gamesmanship.

“Federal employees should not have to suffer -- through no fault of their own -- just because Republicans insist on shutting down the government,” Cummings said. “These hardworking employees have endured relentless attacks on their pay and benefits over the past several years, and they should not be penalized again now if extremists place their own ideology over our nation’s best interests.”

Historically, furloughed federal employees have been paid retroactively after a government shutdown. The current political climate drastically differs from the last shutdown in the mid-1990s, however, and back pay is far from a guarantee. Even the Obama administration would not commit to supporting retroactive pay for furloughed employees, according to union officials.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the second highest ranking Democrat in the Senate, took the Senate floor Thursday to plead the case of federal employees.

Republicans are “playing high-stakes poker with other people’s money,” Durbin said. “The victims of this political crisis will not be the senators and House members. It will be a lot of innocent people, a lot of workers across America, who only want to get up and do their work for the government to make this the greatest nation on Earth.” 

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said for now the focus is on avoiding a shutdown altogether, but as soon as the first employee gets furloughed, the union will begin pressuring Congress to issue back pay. She added that newer employees who were not around for the last shutdown may have “heard the folklore” of retroactive pay, and NTEU is working to make sure employees realize it is “not a done deal.”