As the shutdown enters its second month without much progress toward reopening the government, hundreds of thousands of federal workers are bracing to miss their second paycheck in a row. The current partial shutdown undermines the longstanding notion that federal jobs are more stable than jobs in the private sector.
“Traditionally, if you’ve gotten a job with the federal government, you’re set for life, there’s security and it’s an honor to say I work for the federal government,” said Ed Hill, a 22-year employee of the Census Bureau who is currently furloughed. “But now, it’s not as honorable as it used to be.”
Federal employees do have more rights than those in the private sector. Guaranteed health insurance, retirement benefits, and a higher level of job security are just some of the reasons Americans have historically flocked to government jobs.
But those benefits do little to help pay the bills that are now past due. While furloughed and excepted employees are guaranteed back pay whenever the government reopens, there is little to be done for them in the meantime.
“Federal unions and other workers have tried to force the federal government through the courts to pay them timely,” said Tom Spiggle, an employee rights attorney who has offered free consultations to furloughed federal employees. “They recently just lost a preliminary battle on that front. So, it looks at least at this point — and we’ll see how long the shutdown drags on, whether courts have more opportunity to intervene — but at this point, there’s not that much they can do to force the government to pay them now.”
Government contractors, who are not likely to receive any money for missed work, are in an even more precarious position. “We can advise them on their rights to seek extra work, apply for unemployment benefits, those sorts of things,” said Spiggle. “But there really is precious little to be done to help them.”
For federal employees who are unable to do their jobs, being caught in the crossfire of a political debate is not what they signed up for when they decided to become a public servant. And when they’re unable to do their work, everyone suffers.
“It’s sad that we’re actually being held hostage,” said Hill. “We serve the American public. So not only are we being held hostage — people that we serve, the American public, is being held hostage.”
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to clarify that federal employees receive retirement benefits that are often better than those found in the private sector. Those benefits can include pensions, which are guaranteed to some federal employees.
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