As the end of current federal appropriations again looms, this time on December 3rd, federal employees are again steeling themselves for a government shutdown. This time, however, since the last lengthy government shutdown between December 2018 and January 2019, Congress has passed laws that change how shutdowns impact federal employees. The biggest change comes from the Government Employee Fair Treatment Act, under which all federal employees are considered in “pay status” during the shutdown, even those non-essential workers who have previously been furloughed. The rub is that these employees will not receive paychecks while their agencies are closed, but the law guarantees that they will receive back pay for the workdays during the shutdown, including benefits, accrual of leave, bonuses, and all other compensation they would normally receive when the government reopens.
Additionally, while previously federal employee health coverage was continued during shutdowns, under the Act, long-term care insurance, vision, and dental coverage are now also continued, and insurance carriers are prohibited from terminating any of these benefits due to non-payment of premiums. Additionally, the Federal Employee Health Benefits (FEHB) and Federal Employee Group Life Insurance (FEGLI) systems are now classified as “emergency” services, which ensures that federal employees will be able to modify, enroll, or disenroll in various benefits, even during the shutdown. New regulations also prevent agencies from charging leave to furloughed employees, while also allowing essential workers who continue working to use any accrued leave time as they normally would.
While these changes have mitigated some of the financial uncertainties that federal workers face during a government shutdown, these protections do not extend to one of the more vulnerable sectors of government employment—that of federal contractors, many of which are low-wage retail, food services, janitorial and security workers. Many thousands of these contractors will also be furloughed should the government shut down, and unlike federal employees, they are not guaranteed back pay and are unlikely to receive any. While some members of Congress have discussed extending back-pay protections to contractors, Congress as a whole has yet to act, and there seems to be little enthusiasm for it from either side of the aisle.
Given this, and despite the new protections afforded by law, we can certainly all hope that Congress resolves the budget to avoid the disruptions both big and small created by government shutdowns.
By Founding Partner Debra D'Agostino and Law Fellow Daniel Pope