The Environmental Protection Agency is winding down operations this week as the partial U.S. government shutdown drags on, out of cash to keep the federal agency running. The Smithsonian has closed, locking up the National Portrait Gallery, American History Museum, Air and Space Museum, African American Museum and more than 10 other institutions. The Department of Agriculture also is closing offices that offer loans to farmers, while the Coast Guard will suspend boating safety checks and ship maintenance. Even the National Zoo’s popular pandacam is switched off.
With some 10 agencies mostly dormant since Dec. 22, that means 800,000 government employees around the U.S. face the anxiety of carrying on with their lives without a paycheck. More than half of them are still required to show up to work.
“We’re getting very close to the point where people will be missing their paychecks,” said Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, which represents about 110,000 federal workers.
“We had federal employees who were literally taking Christmas presents that were wrapped and ready to give, and taking them back to the store. They were hunkering down for lean times,” Erwin added.
In the past, Congress has retroactively paid federal workers after shutdowns. But because the current pay period is nearly over, even if a deal were reached Thursday, federal workers likely won’t see that money until late January, said an official with AFGE, the largest federal workers’ union.
When will workers get paid?
That’s because most payroll processing is automated, the official explained. The two-week pay period closes on Saturday, Jan. 5, and it would take three to five business days to get the system working again, the official said. That means it’s more than likely workers won’t get that paycheck until Jan. 25 or thereabouts.
An attorney who often represents federal employees concurred. Many of the workers she represents have pay periods ending on Saturday, so in order to be paid on time, their information needs to be transmitted into the payroll system by the following Tuesday, or two business days later.
After the 2013 shutdown, federal pay processing centers worked faster than usual to reduce the amount of time workers had to wait to get their back pay, said Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents about 150,000 workers. He has asked the relevant agencies to do the same this time, he said.
On top of the near certainty they won’t be getting their next paycheck, some federal employees are having to make payments on the work expenses they’ve charged to government credit cards while knowing they’re not being reimbursed for those expenses, Reardon added.
“That’s caused a great deal of anxiety,” he said. “They’re angry because they’re thrown into the middle of a fight that they didn’t create, and they don’t have any power to resolve it.”
AFGE last week sued the government on behalf of two men who weren’t paid for working on Dec. 22 as they were required to do. The suit is seeking class-action status. “We’ve been inundated with fed employees who are extremely upset about the shutdown and want to join the case,” said Heidi Burakiewicz, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs.
It’s not the first time such a suit has been filed: After the 2013 shutdown, Burakiewicz succeeded in winning additional overtime pay for some 25,000 federal workers, after a court found that being forced to work without pay violated labor laws. Come Jan. 11, she added, 420,000 workers will be eligible to join the suit.
Jan. 11 is also the date that he judiciary system will run out of money and will start sending workers home, according to Politico.
While federal employees can expect to get paid — eventually — there’s no back pay for federal contractors, some of whom have taken on second jobs during the shutdown to avoid falling behind on bills.