What happens to defense workers if the government shuts down?

Congress needs to fund the government by April 28 or government employees will see a repeat of the 2013 shutdown.

While the White House says the chances of the government actually shutting down are unlikely, we at Federal News Radio are answering some of the most pressing questions on the minds of defense workers.

Will I work if the government shuts down?

That all depends on your role in the Defense Department. The government furloughed about half of its civilian force during the 2013 shutdown, a total of about 400,000 civilians. Who works and who doesn’t is all based on what positions are considered essential.

If you’re active-duty military, you will work.

“We can and will continue to support key military operations. We’re allowed to do that by law, but the law would force us to disrupt many of our support activities,” former DoD Comptroller Bob Hale said during the last shutdown. “We wouldn’t be able to do most training, we couldn’t enter into most new contracts, routine maintenance would have to stop, we couldn’t continue efforts to improve contracting and financial management including our audit improvement efforts.

For civilians it’s more complicated.

DoD released a 2015 contingency plan for the possibility of a shutdown. The plan lays out what positions would work if the government runs out of money. Those positions include jobs needed for the “safety of human life or protection of property” like civilians who operate and assess intelligence data.

Advertisement

Other positions that won’t be furloughed are those working in the medical and dental care field and those working in acquisition and logistics for essential operations. Those working in logistics at central receiving points for supplies purchased before the shutdown will stay on duty until they are no longer needed.

Education and training positions are mostly exempted from a shutdown, as are those working on legal activities for essential activities.

DoD employees who work in mess halls and child care activities will report to work as will those working with the management of funds for essential services.

There’s also a wild card option: any activities funded with unobligated, unexpired balances will keep their employees on duty. That means if the account that funds your department still has money, you’ll report to work.

A full list of essential employee functions can be found here.

Will I get paid?

No, at least not at first. For all intents and purposes the government does not have money during a shutdown. Those who are working are providing pro bono services to the government for the well being of the nation.

Don’t think you can get out of it just because there is a shutdown either. Employees who refuse to work must comply or face disciplinary action. You also can’t take any leave during the shutdown period.

Those in the military won’t be paid, unless Congress can come up with some sort of exception. In 2013, Congress passed a bill that provided money for the continued pay of the military through the shutdown. After five days of interpretation, Justice Department lawyers decided that bill extended to a majority of furloughed civilians, which brought them back to work and paid them as well.

During that time, paycheck processing pretty much stayed the same; however, there is no guarantee Congress will pass a bill to pay the military this time around.

For civilians who had time furloughed, Congress eventually passed a law paying them for their work during the shutdown. If the government shuts down this time, there are no promises Congress will do the same thing.

What if I’m a defense contractor?

While military members and many contractors would still go to work during a government shutdown, there are restrictions on what they would be able to do. For example, contractors would still be prohibited from doing “inherently governmental” work. And military members would be prohibited from performing the duties of presidentially-appointed and Senate-confirmed officials.

Hale said things like the war in Afghanistan definitely constitute “excepted” activities, but that doesn’t necessarily mean all military commanders have the authority to carry out their operations as normal.

“These are the sort of gray area decisions that our managers and commanders are making right now as they identify excepted and non-excepted,” he said. “But I think most of the ships at sea would stay there. If there were some that stayed strictly in training and weren’t excepted, they would be able to stand down if they had to in an orderly fashion. And we’ll have to make some judgment about what that means. Obviously, you can’t get the ship back immediately.”

What changes might I see?

During the last shutdown DoD saw its support services take a hit. DoD held back care packages to troops in Afghanistan because of abrupt staffing cuts in the military postal system in Europe.

The Pentagon curtailed seemingly-minor creature comforts such as cable TV for service members serving overseas. The Armed Forces Network took all but one of its channels off the air because of furloughs at its broadcast center in Riverside, California.

The shutdown resulted in a patchwork of disrupted services that varied from installation to installation. For instance, a family child care management office might be at least partially open on one base because it’s managed by a military member. At another installation, a similar office might be closed because its civilian-led workforce has not been exempted from furlough by the local commander.

There’s also the matter of the Veterans Affairs Department. VA did not accept any new disability compensation claims or issue any decisions on appealed claims during the 2013 shutdown, and it cut back on the number of hours its claims processors worked. Several toll-free hotline numbers for veterans, including those designed to handle claims for education benefits shut down entirely.