J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Furloughed Feds Poised to Receive Back Pay After House Sends Measure to Trump

The president said he would sign the bill, which would retroactively compensate feds when the shutdown ends.

About 350,000 federal employees currently on furlough are all but assured to receive back pay, with the House on Friday sending a measure to President Trump's desk to guarantee retroactive compensation once the partial government shutdown ends. Trump has indicated to lawmakers he will sign the legislation.

The House passed the 2019 Government Employee Fair Treatment Act after the Senate approved it Thursday evening. The bill both guarantees back pay for furloughed workers and ensures that the roughly 500,000 employees working without immediate pay during the shutdown are able to take previously scheduled leave without consequence. Current governmentwide guidance requires agencies to cancel leave for those workers.

Excepted and exempted federal employees who work during a shutdown are already guaranteed back pay by law. Furloughed workers have historically always received their paychecks retroactively, but Congress must act affirmatively to ensure that happens.

The measure requires agencies to make employees whole “at the earliest date possible after the lapse in appropriations ends,” regardless of the timing of the next pay period or when the next round of paychecks is scheduled to go out. The bill was written to ensure back pay for furloughed feds in future shutdowns as well. 

Maryland Democratic Sens. Ben Cardin, who introduced the measure, and Chris Van Hollen led the charge for passing the bill.

“Federal employees should not be punished—and their paychecks held hostage—by the government dysfunction that leads to a shutdown,” Van Hollen said. “As we work to end this shutdown, providing our federal workforce with the certainty that they will receive their paycheck is the right thing to do.”

The Senate only took up the measure after some drama Thursday evening. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., threatened to block a unanimous consent vote to adjourn the chamber for the day—and, with no votes scheduled for Friday, effectively for the weekend—unless Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., agreed to bring up House-passed bills to reopen the government. McConnell instead agreed to take up the back pay bill, but only after receiving assurances from the White House that Trump would sign it.

“I had an opportunity to talk to President Trump a few moments ago, and wanted to indicate to our colleagues that he will sign the bill that we’ve been discussing here to guarantee that government workers who’ve been displaced as a result of the shutdown will ultimately be compensated,” McConnell said on the Senate floor, “and so I want to ease their anxiety about that particular possibility.”  

Trump has repeatedly sought to minimize the impact the shutdown is having on federal workers, saying they will “make an adjustment,” can ask for relief from their landlords and don’t mind missing paychecks because they support his proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. He has alternatively said they support his shutdown fight (despite data to the contrary) and that virtually all of those affected are Democrats.

Some lawmakers are pushing for additional back pay legislation to ensure that contractors going without pay also receive compensation for their time off. The 2019 Low-Wage Federal Contractor Employee Back Pay Act (H.R. 339), introduced by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., would compensate contractors who provide retail, food, custodial and security services at federal agencies shuttered during the partial government shutdown. Norton introduced similar legislation after the 2013 government shutdown, but it never received a vote.

Thirty-three Democratic senators wrote to Office of Management and Budget acting Director Russ Vought on Thursday, pushing him to direct agencies to work with contractors to ensure those workers receive back pay when the government reopens.

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