Dec. 16 (UPI) — With a deadline looming this week for another federal government shutdown — a year after the longest such hiatus in U.S. history — a number of federal workers are bracing for another round of potential furloughs and missed paychecks.
Congressional negotiators agreed in principle last week to a spending deal that would avert a shutdown, but their $1.37 trillion funding proposal still needs lawmakers’ full approval.
If the agreement is not passed — it can still be nixed by either chamber or President Donald Trump — government money would run out Friday. Federal employees — some who are still reeling from the record 35-day closure that started at the end of 2018 — know they could be without a steady paycheck for days, weeks, or months.
A recent survey by the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 150,000 federal employees at 33 agencies and departments, found that more than 81 percent of more than 6,200 workers are worried about their ability to pay bills if they’re thrust into yet another shutdown.
“The pain from the record shutdown one year ago is just too fresh and now even the mere chance of another is alarming to federal employees again this holiday season,” NTEU National President Tony Reardon said. “Federal employees all over the country are terrified, again, that they will either be locked out of their jobs or forced to work without pay.
“Everything has changed. No longer are federal employees numb to the repeated shutdown threats.”
More than 72 percent have already started cutting back on spending, or say they will begin soon — which could also signal trouble for the U.S. retail market at its most lucrative time of the year. More than half said a federal closure would interrupt or cancel holiday travel or vacation.
“There will be less under the Christmas tree for my grandchildren again this year,” one NTEU member wrote in the survey. “We have to make sure we have enough money to pay the lights, gas and water companies to keep us warm.”
“Our paychecks should not be held or utilized like hostages for negotiation,” wrote another.
The U.S. government shuts down almost always as a result of lawmakers failing to agree on at least one political issue — and it’s often one that has nothing at all to do with operational expenses. The shutdown last year was fueled entirely by the squabble over Trump’s long-promised border wall to keep undocumented migrants from entering the United States.
“They are angry and frustrated that once again, a stalemate in Washington that they have nothing to do with could disrupt their lives,” Reardon said.
Some workers are so frustrated, that 63 percent of the 6,200 surveyed by the NTEU said the recurring shutdowns are motivating them to consider leaving federal employment altogether.
Federal workers typically fall into one of two categories when a shutdown arrives. They are either furloughed or required to continue working without pay. The latter will receive reimbursement for their unpaid work, but that doesn’t help those who need to pay bills now. In some cases, federal employees are forced to wait for years to fully recover from a closure.
Attorneys determined just last month that more than 20,000 federal workers are still owed money stemming from a shutdown in 2013. The compensation comes from a union lawsuit that argues the government violated federal law by forcing some employees to work without pay.
In a court filing, federal employment attorney Heidi Burakiewicz concluded that 21,781 government employees are eligible for fiscal damages after a judge ruled in 2017 that those who worked without wages should receive double their back pay — including overtime.
A resolution in that case, however, may still be a ways off. Attorneys on both sides of the case continue to debate which methodology should be used to determine the precise dollar amounts the plaintiffs should receive.
“Did we learn nothing from the last shutdown?” Reardon asked. “I thought we, as a country, finally recognized that middle class federal workers were innocent bystanders and they don’t deserve to suffer for someone else’s political dysfunction.
“[We call] on Congress and the administration to pass spending bills that provide federal agencies with stable, adequate resources to carry out their missions on behalf of all Americans.”