As a shutdown looms, some in Congress are proactively trying to protect workers.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are trying to ensure that federal employees who are furloughed during a government shutdown receive back pay as soon as possible.
Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., and Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., sent a letter to their House colleagues on Tuesday urging them to support legislation that would provide retroactive pay to all federal employees immediately after the government reopens. “Preferably, Congress will reach an agreement to enact legislation to fully fund the government and allow our dedicated federal workforce to continue to carry out its critical mission,” the Sept. 22 letter stated. “In absence of such agreement and with time running dangerously short, federal employees should be assured that there is agreement in Congress that they will receive their pay in a fair and timely manner.”
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., has introduced a similar bill.
Congress has to pass legislation to approve back pay for federal employees furloughed during a government closure. In the 2013 shutdown, which lasted 16 days, back pay for furloughed feds was not guaranteed until lawmakers struck the final deal to fund agencies and reopen government. Although the government reopened on Oct. 17, they did not collect their wages until Oct. 25.
Lawmakers have four legislative days left this time to avoid a shutdown, which will begin on Oct. 1 if they cannot agree on a short-term funding measure to keep the government open. “I can’t stand here and say with confidence that there won’t be a government shutdown despite all our efforts to avoid a government shutdown,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., on Tuesday during a press briefing with Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, on the agency’s campus in Bethesda, Maryland.
Van Hollen and Collins said NIH will have to turn away many patients seeking treatment for cancer and other serious diseases during a government shutdown, something that happened in 2013.
“This is not an argument about hypotheticals. Real lives are affected, the real lives of children who are already in difficult straits,” Collins said. NIH furloughed about 80 percent of its workforce during the 2013 shutdown, Collins said. Some nurses, physicians and support staff stay on the job at the agency’s clinical center to take care of current patients. Staff who care for animals on the NIH campus and critical medical equipment also continue to work during a shutdown.
Van Hollen said he met a young cancer patient at NIH on Tuesday who would not be able to receive his treatments during a shutdown. The Maryland Democrat, whose district includes NIH, said that such patients, along with federal employees, are some of the “innocent victims” who bear the brunt of a shutdown. Van Hollen is a co-sponsor of the Federal Employee Retroactive Pay Fairness Act.
Collins said the agency learned from the 2013 government shutdown and is thinking in general terms of how to handle another potential government closure. “We haven’t activated any particular steps,” he said, adding that he’s still hopeful Congress will avoid a shutdown before next Thursday.
Asked if there was some way NIH could try to use public safety as a reason to keep more employees on the job during a shutdown, Collins was not optimistic. “We tried our best the last time, and we went as far as we could under the law," he said. "I don’t expect we could do much better this time.”