The Washington Post

What to expect in a government shutdown

Oct 01, 2013

What happens now that the government has shutdown? Washington Post reporters Joe Davidson and Eric Yoder answered your questions about what's affected, how federal workers will be impacted and anything else you want to know about what to expect during the shutdown.

Greetings, everyone. This is Eric Yoder joined by Josh Hicks-- welcome to our chat.

In addition to answering your questions, we'd like to hear about your experiences today. If you're being furloughed, exactly what are you doing as part of the so-called "orderly shutdown?" Are you being told to leave your mobile electronics at the office? Have you been told if you'll be paid for working this morning? And are agencies being clear about the policy that you're not supposed to work from now on, not even telecommute or check your email?

For those who will be staying on the job--do you get the feeling that you will be expected to make up for the work of those being furloughed? Do you see signs that work is being shifted to contractors or in the case of DoD to active military personnel?

With that, on to the questions.

How is it determined if back pay will be given to impacted employees? Is that more likely with a short or long shutdown?

The policy as stated by guidance from both OMB and OPM is that those who are "excepted" from furlough (that is, who have to stay on the job) will get paid, no question. That's because the government has incurred a legal obligation to pay them by requiring them to work. Exactly when that would be would depend on how long the shutdown would last. If it's over fairly quickly, within a week or so, the next paycheck likely would just be processed as normal. There's a story and chart in today's A section explaining all that.

For those "non-excepted" (that is, sent home) the precedent is that they have been paid retroactively in prior shutdowns. But that's up to the political leaders and may be less likely this time around, as our colleague Lisa Rein has reported.  

Hard to judge the impact of the length on the prospects of this category getting back pay. One argument would be that they suffered a substantial loss of income through no fault of their own and need to be made whole. On the other side, of course, is that every day would get more expensive.

Are staff of the Senators and Congresspeople also furloughed? They should all be working with no pay and feel what it is like to crumble morale

Lots of people make that argument. Here's a rundown of the policies.

Basically, the law seems to be written so that members of Congress are on a permanent appropriation. Same goes for the President, incidentally, whose salary can't be changed while in office. It will be up to individual members to decide which of their employees will stay on the job, much as agencies are making that decision. Similarly, the support-type operations will have a distinction between positions such as security vs. work that can be deferred.

Having to tell your own employees that you are furloughing them could bring this home to members of Congress who were ok with the idea of a shutdown. However, my guess would be that they will delegate the task to their chief of staff.

Thankfully most of the good stuff is on the Canadian side, but what kind of trouble will we encounter crossing the border (I mean it isn't like they can turn off the waterfall)

U.S. Customs and Border Protection handles border crossings, and nearly 90 percent of that agency's employees are exempt from furloughs. I wouldn't expect many changes.

I haven't seen the Post address the situation that some agencies have no-year money, which means those employees can continue to work until the money runs out. This usually only means a few days or a couple of weeks, but there are non-excepted employees still on the job this week. For an example, see Energy's website.

I don't think we've tried to do a comprehensive roundup of operations funded with this kind of status, but we have included it in the context of a number of stories. For example, in this story this morning, I mention that certain operations of OPM as well as the TSP remain open because they do not depend on annual appropriations.

You'll also see references to similar issues involving many agencies, such as the Patent Office, in our roundup chart.

We also have mentioned that the courts, for example, have said they can stay open for several weeks using no-year money. And of course the Postal Service is unaffected because it is self-funding (or at least is supposed to be).

All this underscores how complex government funding is, when you start to dig.

What about gov contractors who work for private companies? Where is the discussion about their loss of income, productivity and the impact on those businesses? My family will be out the majority of our income due to this mess!

Good question. I explored this issue in a recent article on the costs of a shutdown.  Here's a link

And here's a blog item I wrote on this topic this morning

It's actually pretty complicated, and firms are struggling to determine how the shutdown will affect their contracts. Largely depends on whether the work supports "essential" government functions that protect life and property. Also depends on whether the contract is funded through past appropriations (in which case they are not affected) or with future appropriations (in which case they could be put on hold or even canceled).

Isn't requiring people to work for no pay kind of like modern day slavery? As you can see I am at work, but without other co-workers I can't do my job anyway so I am just going to surf the web and join web-chats. (not to mention catching up on my nexflix watching on my smartphone.

Fair point. A bipartisan group of lawmakers just proposed a bill today that would pay federal workers retroactively for the shutdown period. Congress approved such legislation after the fiscal year 1996 shutdowns. In fact, I'm pretty sure they've done that with every shutdown. But it's not clear whether this Congress would do so.

Here's a blog item on the bill I'm referring to:

This organization usually is exempt from shutdowns?

This gets back to the complexities of funding. According to the Transportation shutdown plan, FHA is exempt from furloughs because it is self funding, using trust fund money. See here:

It's a little insulting to refer to the PTO as the Patent Office. It's the Patent & Trademark Office, and it's Trademarks' money that is keeping the agency open right now.

 Just using some shorthand there. No insult intended.

Doesn't the agency collect fees from patent applicants and patent maintenance fees too?

Suddenly, our agency was able to find some money to stay open. I thought that all the remaining funds were sent back to OMB at the end of the year. Do you know how these funds were 'found.'?

Which agency do you work for? I know that the US Patent and Trademark Office has reserve funds from past fee collections. It's not likely that an agency would "find" money to continue operating if they are fully or mostly funded by congressional appropriations. However,  if they generate revenue on their own (essentially making them self-funding), then they can stay open for awhile regardless of what happens with Congress.

Are the Social Security Offices opened or closed during this shut down?

SSA offices are open but not all services are being provided. See here

Now that the shutdown has actually happened, it seems like it could either end quickly or last a long time. Members of congress could decide the damage has been done and stand their grounds more firmly without compromise or they could decide that getting a fast resolution is better and be more willing to compromise.

I'm not sure "damage has been done" captures it so much as "point has been made"

How will this effect air travel - safety and anticipated flight delays?

I haven't seen any projected problems with air travel. Controllers and various air traffic safety positions are excluded from the furhough. See here (PDF)

I'm sure the Post will have coverage of that issue if it arises.

Will the Government shutdown affect this month's Social Security Checks?

SSA says no. See the link above.

IF Thursday, October 3 was to be my next scheduled payday - is it GUARANTEED that my paycheck will be automatically deposited in the bank?

Based on what you said, you should be paid on Oct. 3. This super-handy graphic from my colleagues will help answer your questions about pay. Share it with your co-workers, because I'm sure a ton of them are wondering the same thing.

How many federal employees based in the district will be kept home?

I haven't seen any breakdown by location. It's all agency by agency, or within agencies by functions, as we have done with the chart referenced above.

If anyone knows of a place doing a geographic breakdown, please let us know.

Will contractors get backpay?

The professional services associations we've talked to said they don't know of any instances in which Congress provided backpay to contractors after a shutdown. However, your private-sector employer can do whatever it wants, as the federal government does not directly control their pay policies in this regard. At the end of the day, there's nothing saying you would not be paid -- Congress is just unlikely to guarantee it. I recommend talking to your supervisor(s). 

OJP is part of the U.S. Department of Justice. So, maybe they had some no year appropriations....from what I am reading about other agencies.

This may help (from this):

Grant Programs (Office of Justice Programs, Community Oriented Policing Services, Office on Violence Against Women): As Presidential Appointees, the OVW and COPS Directors, and the Assistant Attorney General for OJP, are not subject to furlough. The grants awarded by the Department are funded from no-year appropriations, as are the employees who administer those grants. As a result, these activities may continue during a lapse as long as sufficient carryover funds remain.

What happens to Federal Workers' health insurance during the shutdown?

Coverage continues, with the employee share of premium (assuming the employee didn't earn enough in a pay period to cover it) to be paid after return to pay status. I mentioned that in a story last week:

How will this affect Grants due to college students in the next weeks.

The Department of Education has said college students receiving Pell Grants and federal student loans would go largely unaffected by the shutdown. However, grant or loan recipients may find it difficult to get answers to questions, as only about 140 employees working on Pell Grants or the Direct Loan program will remain on the job.

Will the government shutdown affect people receiving disability checks?

If you mean Social Security disability, the agency has said those will continue to be paid.

Uh oh. Just sent away for a passort renewal. Are those offices closed too?

Those offices will remain open, and the Department of State will continue to process US passport applications, as well as foreign applications for visas, according to the agency's shutdown plan. However, if past is precedent, you can expect delays. That's what happened during the fiscal 1996 shutdowns.

Good Morning - Do you know of any protests/demonstrations at the Capitol or White House regarding the Shutdown?

Not yet, but wouldn't be a surprise to see them. We will write about it if anything like that comes up.

If you belong to an employee organization (especially a union) you might want to contact them to see if they have plans in the works.

How likely is it that the government and various contractors see a 'brain drain' post shutdown? Every September into October there is the fear of a shutdown or a funding gap. At some point this will have negative consequences, right? It's almost sad when I have to save my vacation time for October every year knowing this might happen

Good question, and one that good government advocates have worried about for some time.

Is your agency letting you take annual leave to substitute for furlough? That's against the OPM policy.

If the ACA is being handled by the IRS, and 90% of IRS staff is furloughed, how will people be able to sign up for ACA?

The IRS is only handling the ACA in that it enforces the "individual mandate" requiring you to have insurance coverage. With your next tax filing, you will have to prove that you have health coverage. If you don't have coverage, the IRS will make sure you are fined. As such, the IRS shutdown does not affect the ACA at the moment.

Will retiree's pensions be received today (Oct 1st) as usual, or are we "on hold for payments" until the shutdown has ended?

We have reported several times that they are being paid as scheduled. The most thorough treatment is in this story.

I work in immigration law. I have clients with immigration court hearings scheduled this week (for which clients have waited years). I do not know whether to tell my clients the hearings wont' happen or plan as if they will in case the shutdown ends. What is the likelihood that the shutdown will end this week? Is this a situation where, now that it's shut down, it will take a while to get things up and running again, or are government agencies more or less ready to hit the ground running as soon as the money is allocated?

Hard to say when it will end. It's just wait and see.

Shutting down the government and cranking it back up again is not like flipping a switch. Likely it will be several days or even longer after the return to get back to regular operations.

Will most people still get their food stamps even though there is a government shutdown?

The government will continue to make SNAP (food stamp) disbursements, despite the shutdown.

... be helping American warriors with their VA claim appeals. Instead I am doing laundry. This is truly bogus.

Steve Vogel has been breaking a lot of stories about the impact on veterans. You might want to contact him

Will local human services agencies be affected?

Which human services are you referring to?

After 30 days of furlough (including sequester furlough days) each organization goes into RIF mode. An furloughed employee could bump an essential employee in different organization. Comments? Help?

I seriously doubt it will go on that long. I don't think the sequester furlough would count toward the 30 day threshold but that's something worth checking.

You might want to familiarize yourself with this.

RIF rules are really complex. You'll find them here.

We certainly heard some at 16th and rhode island.

Thanks. I assume that's AFGE?

I live and work in DC, and was supposed to get married at the DC courthouse on Friday. The Post suggests that DC govt is still open, and someone answered the phone at the courthouse when I just called, but I got the impression they were cancelling my wedding anyway. What gives?


That's out of our department here but if this proves to be a problem and you'd be willing to have it reported on, please contact me and I'll pass it allong to the appropriate person. My email is

With that, it's time for me to sign off. I'm sorry we couldn't get to all your questions. Thanks again for participating.

The communication I've received about this is confusing. I'm in college thanks to the VA. Will I continue to get my tuition payments?

I can't say with absolute certainty, as my colleague Steve Vogel covers the VA ( However, I know that the VA employees who handle education services are supposed to be exempt from furloughs. That suggests to me that your tuition payments will continue. However, the VA has said it will eventually run out of money to keep those employees on the job and continue making payments. So you're right to be confused, and you're not the only one. Members of Congress blasted the VA for causing confusion on this issue. It appears based on this article that you would continue receiving benefits until at least the end of October.

Gotta run, folks. More reporting to be done. Sorry we couldn't answer all of your questions, but hopefully this was helpful to most of you.  Thanks for participating. Please check back periodically for additional shutdown chats. And stay tuned to the Post's Federal Eye blog for ongoing coverage of all things fed-related.

In This Chat
Eric Yoder
Eric Yoder is an an award-winning writer and covers the federal government for the Washington Post. Yoder is co-author of "One Minute Mysteries: 65 Short Mysteries You Solve with Science!" and "One Minute Mysteries: 65 Short Mysteries You Solve with Math!"
Josh Hicks
Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler's Fact Checker column in 2011. Josh graduated from Albion College and Stanford. He also lived in New Zealand for eight months working as a commercial fisherman and fruit picker.
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