The monuments are gated off, the parks are closed down, and most importantly, the Washington Zoo’s panda cam has gone black. The shutdown has begun. Throughout day one of the government’s first shutdown in seventeen years, media outlets spent a great deal of time focusing on these rather superficial aspects of the shutdown. The stories which dominated public consciousness throughout much of the day focused on the group of World War II veterans who broke through a barricade to visit the World War II memorial, the closing of Yosemite on its 123rd anniversary (commemorated by a Google doodle), and the pressing question of whether or not the Army-Navy game would still take place. All of these stories, however, failed to acknowledge the biggest impact of the government’s shutdown – the furloughed workers.
“Non-essential” is a term which doesn’t create much sympathy by itself (which explains why the official term was changed to “non-excepted” in 1995). Nonetheless, 800,000 federal employees who were deemed “non-essential” by their respective agencies as well as the Office of Management and Budget were sent home on Monday and will continue to be furloughed until Congress can agree on a continuing resolution to fund the government. Many of these 800,000 workers have families to provide for, mortgages to pay, and if they aren’t planning on signing up on a newly rolled out healthcare exchange (yes, Obamacare went live even as the rest of the government shut down), insurance bills that will come due even if this government dysfunction continues. Many of the workers who were furloughed make far less than the $174,000 made by the Congressmen and women who are responsible for this creating this debacle in the first place. It’s important to keep in mind that these are the exact same workers who were hit by the sequester; the same workers who experienced a three-year cost of living freeze that first came out of Congress in 2010 and only ended last month when President Obama announced his intentions to issue an executive order increasing federal pay by 1% starting on January 1st, 2014.
Complicating matters is the uncertainty over whether furloughed workers will receive back pay for the time they’re out of work. This isn’t guaranteed during a shutdown and it most recently occurred during the shutdowns of 1995 -96, which lasted a total of twenty-eight days. Right now, support for such a move is tepid at best. The Huffington Post notes that Congressional Republicans are currently split on whether or not to give back pay to furloughed workers. Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Susan Collins (R-ME) stated their support for such a measure, but other Congressional Republicans were more skeptical. Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) who only a few days called Sen. Cruz’s filibuster strategy “the height of hypocrisy” noted the difficulties of achieving bipartisan support for a bill to retroactively pay furloughed workers when he stated “I think it’s way too early to even consider that, but again we’re $7 trillion more in the hole now than we were [in 1995-96]”. Another explanation for reduced support for back pay is that perception of federal workers has evolved significantly since 1996. The shift in sentiment towards federal workers is best evidenced by pay-freezes and their new found status as a group that’s often first on the chopping block during budget debates which have taken place over the past few years. While back pay hasn’t been on the top of most lawmakers’ agendas, one group of lawmakers who have been vocal in their support for providing furloughed workers with back pay includes representatives from Maryland and Virginia who have many constituents who work for the federal government in D.C. and will feel the full effect of the shutdown. Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) co-sponsored a bill to provide federal employees with back pay stating that “Today’s bipartisan proposal shields families’ pocketbooks from partisan politics and reaffirms our commitment to federal workers”. It’s still unclear whether this bill will receive enough support to pass both houses of Congress.
The final way in which the government shutdown will affect workers deals with government contractors and their employees. This too is something which is shrouded in uncertainty. (Remember the days when both parties campaigned on reducing economic uncertainty?) The Congressional Research Service points out that the government contracted out $513.6 billion worth of business and services in 2012. Military contracting alone totaled over $360 billion last year. Even a shutdown which lasts for only a few days, would jeopardize billions of dollars’ worth of government contracts. To complicate matters further, many contractors are unsure of whether they’re considered “essential” or “non-essential”. On Monday night President Obama signed into law a provision which guaranteed payments to military contractors providing support to the armed forces, but other than that, it’s an unanswered question. The Office of Management and Budget hasn’t made any official determinations about which contracts are “essential”. As of now, many contractors are still attempting to figure out what sort of delays will occur with contracts that have already been signed and how whether or not the shutdown will disrupt the projects that require frequent interaction with the government, oftentimes through workers who have been deemed “non-essential”.
Yes, the shutdown is terrible news if you were planning on visiting the Washington Monument during this first week of October. It’s always terrible news if you’re one of the 800,000 workers who are being sent home without pay due a government which is unable to govern. These workers are already feeling the full force of the shutdown as the rest of us continue on with little interruption of our daily lives. They are the first victims.
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