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Debunking 5 Misconceptions About Being a Government Worker During the Shutdown

As the government shutdown slogs along, 800,000 federal workers are coping with the day-to-day challenges of life without a pay check. They are also having to deal with people who have the wrong idea about what the shutdown means for those who work for the government.

The shutdown is a messy mix of political wrangling and government operations, so it’s no wonder people are confused. Here are five misconceptions about being a federal government worker during the shutdown.

Update: Once you read these misconceptions, check out GovLoop’s new article with even more debunked government shutdown misconceptions.

Misconception: Government workers should just get a second job

It’s not that easy. Restrictions are imposed on federal employees who want to take on other jobs. Some employees are banned from earning money through what’s called “outside activities.” In agencies that allow employees to have another job, their side hustle can’t overlap with their government responsibilities, create a conflict of interest, or interfere with their official duties.

Even if paid outside activities are permitted at their agency, most federal workers must get pre-approval from their supervisor or an ethics official before starting a second job. But, because the government is shut down, there’s no one around to grant them that permission. If federal workers take a second job without approval, they risk getting into trouble or even losing their job.

Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski tweeted another reason a second job isn’t a realistic option for many furloughed government workers:

“I’ve heard from some regarding the gov’t shutdown that those impacted can just go out & get a second job. But there are many communities in Alaska where you don’t have a lot of options. These secondary jobs are simply not available to many of our rural Alaskans.”

Misconception: Government workers will get back pay

It depends on which government workers you’re talking about. During the shutdown, not everyone in the government workforce is in the same situation. Some are required to work, some are prohibited from working. Some will get paid once the shutdown ends, others will lose weeks of income.

“Excepted” employees are required to work without pay during the shutdown because their jobs are involved in the safety of human life or the protection of property. Other federal employees are “non-excepted” and furloughed, that is sent home without pay and prohibited from working.

In order for both excepted and non-excepted federal employees to receive back pay when the shutdown ends, Congress has to take action. For employees working without pay, they will be paid after Congress passes and the president signs a new appropriation or continuing resolution. For furloughed employees, Congress must pass legislation that specifically provides back pay for them. It took a while, but on Jan. 11, Congress passed the Government Employee Fair Treatment Act (S. 24), which would guarantee retroactive pay to all government employees, excepted and non-excepted, at the end of the current shutdown. Trump said he would sign the bill, but had not as of Jan. 14. [Update: Trump signed the Government Employee Fair Treatment Act on Jan. 16.] That’s a long time to live with uncertainty.

The government workforce also includes federal contractors — people employed by private companies, not by the government. While federal contractors are not covered by the Government Employee Fair Treatment Act, legislation has been proposed to get back pay for low-wage contractors. It’s a long shot. Federal contractors have never received back pay after a shutdown. According to a report by The Volcker Alliance, there were an estimated 3.7 million federal contractors in 2015.

Misconception: The shutdown only affects the government workforce

Government workers are far from the only people dealing with the consequences of the shutdown. When federal employees and contractors are not paid, their families also endure stress and financial strain. People have been using the #ShutdownStories hashtag to help others understand the mounting hardships they and their families are facing.

Additionally, an unknown but significantly large number of other people have jobs that in some way depend on a functioning government. Many are unable to work or do business and will lose earnings for as long as the shutdown lasts.

Who are these other people affected by the shutdown? Employees of restaurants and shops in airport terminals who are closed because of the TSA staff shortage. Small business owners who can’t get loans. Recreation and tour companies that provide services to tourists who want to visit federal properties. Nonprofits that partner with federal agencies or whose work requires access to government facilities, property, resources, or data. Lawyers who can’t take cases to federal court or can’t visit their clients at federal jails. Beer makers who can’t get labels and permits approved. Farmers whose livelihoods are at risk because they can’t get federal loans. These are just a few.

Misconception: Once the shutdown is over, so are government workers’ financial problems

The longer the shutdown goes on, the more challenging it is for government workers to be financially secure now and for months or even years to come. Like most Americans, many government workers have little or no money saved. Four in 10 adults in the U.S. would not be able to come up with $400 to cover an emergency expense. A CareerBuilder survey found that 78 percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. Nearly 14 percent of federal employees affected by this shutdown — almost 111,000 people — earn less than $50,000 a year, according to The Washington Post. The median income for TSA screeners is just $40,000 a year. Many federal contractors are paid low wages below $15 an hour.

Looking at those facts and figures, it’s no wonder that missed paychecks have strained the finances of government employees and contractors. To cope, some people are asking family or friends to lend them money, but not everyone knows someone who can afford to be that generous. Those with good credit might try to get an emergency loan from a bank or charge everything to a credit card, but both of those choices are temporary solutions and come with high interest rates that can take a long time to pay back. People who don’t pay their bills on time may take a hit to their credit score, which can count against them for years whenever they try to take out a loan, buy a car or a house, rent an apartment, or get a new job.

Misconception: Government workers should have been prepared for a shutdown

There’s no way to prepare for something as unpredictable as a government shutdown — and the current shutdown has defied all expectations and precedents.

This is the third time the government partially shutdown in 2018. The last time the government shut down three times in one year was more than forty years ago in 1977. Not all shutdowns lead to disruptions in government services and employee furloughs. Now in its fourth week, the 2018–2019 government shutdown is the longest in U.S. history. This one has dragged out from one Congress to another. With no sign that a budget agreement will be reached soon, no one can know how much longer it will be before government employees and contractors can return to work.

Even if government workers were able to prepare, it’s unlikely they would have foreseen a shutdown this long and chaotic. The best way to overcome these and other misconceptions is to talk to people who work in government. Reach out to federal employees and contractors you know and offer them your compassion. Let them know that you’re grateful for their public service. If you work in government, stay in touch with your colleagues to share advice and support.

Check out GovLoop’s new article with even more debunked government shutdown misconceptions.

You can find all of GovLoop’s shutdown coverage here.

Lauren Girardin is a marketing and communications consultant, freelance writer, and trainer based in San Francisco. She helps organizations engage their communities and tell their stories. Her website is laurengirardin.com and you can connect with her on Twitter at @girardinl.

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