WASHINGTON — At midnight Friday, the federal government entered a partial shutdown, suspending funding for many agencies. This will complicate many lives – those of federal workers and the millions of Americans who rely on them. Here are the answers to questions you might have about how the shutdown could affect you or your neighbor.

What is a government shutdown?

Exactly what it sounds like. Much of the federal government gets its funding from annual budget appropriations decided by Congress. The majority of the government has such funding in place, but other agencies have been operating on a series of temporary extensions since the budget year began on Oct. 1. The latest extension expired Friday at midnight. Since funding wasn’t enacted for these agencies, they began the shutdown process Saturday. Some of the employees working at those agencies will stay on the job nonetheless, while others will be furloughed. In both cases, they will be unpaid until spending authority is restored.

What closes when the government shuts down?

Most federal departments and agencies will be at least partially shut down, but airports, prisons and local parks, schools and libraries will be open.

Will the shutdown halt the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election?

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation will continue as planned because it is funded by a permanent indefinite appropriation, rather than an annual appropriation dependent on Congress. Employees with the special counsel’s office are exempt from furlough.

Who keeps working during a government shutdown?

Some agencies, and thus the employees working in them, are “exempt” from a shutdown because they do not get their funding through the congressional appropriations process. The largest of these is the U.S. Postal Service, which operates on income from postage and the items it sells. Other agencies, or parts of them, also have funding not subject to annual appropriations – for example, through fees they charge for their services, or from trust funds or multi-year budgets. Employees whose salaries are funded in that way would continue working, and getting paid, as normal.

For employees whose salaries are paid from appropriations, there is another distinction: “excepted” vs. “non-excepted.” Excepted employees are those whose jobs involve the safety of human life, the protection of property, or certain other types of work designated by their agencies as necessary to continue. These are not necessarily the same as “emergency” employees who are expected to continue coming to work when agencies close for other reasons, such as for severe weather.

Excepted employees are to continue reporting for work as normal during a shutdown, though for the meantime they would not be paid for that time.

How many federal employees will be furloughed?

Each agency has a shutdown “contingency plan” that describes which functions would remain open and which would close. Some agencies provide specific numbers of employees who would remain at work and how many would be sent home on unpaid furlough; others don’t. In general, the plans have changed relatively little since two short partial shutdowns in early 2018.

During the most recent extensive partial shutdown in 2013, about 800,000 of the 2.1 million civilian federal employees in the executive branch, excluding intelligence agencies, were furloughed.

During that two-week shutdown, some agencies, including the Defense Department and Social Security Administration, started calling furloughed employees back to work. This time, the number of furloughed employees would be smaller because many agencies, including those two, already have full-year funding and won’t be affected by any lapse.

Do furloughed employees get back pay?

That is up to Congress and the White House. The precedent is that furloughed employees are later paid. Legislation has already been introduced in Congress to provide back pay if a shutdown happens.

Incidentally, those who are furloughed could not substitute annual leave or other forms of paid time off for that unpaid time, and previously scheduled leave would be canceled. They could take other jobs but only those allowable under government ethics rules restricting outside income. They also could apply for unemployment benefits, but states typically impose a waiting period of a week or more before benefits begin, and further require that anyone paid later for furlough time must return any unemployment benefits they received.

Which areas could be hit the hardest?

Although the Washington area has the highest number of civilian full-time federal employees, government workers make up large shares of the workforce in many other areas, often near military bases.

How does a shutdown affect federal employee benefits?

Health insurance coverage continues during unpaid time. The enrollee share of the premiums accumulates and is withheld from salary once the employee returns to pay status. For those enrolled in long-term care or vision-dental insurance programs and who pay through payroll withholdings, premiums would accumulate for several unpaid pay periods. After that, they would be billed directly.

Life insurance coverage continues without cost to the employee for an unpaid period up to a year.

A shutdown would not affect future retirement benefits for current employees unless it drags on much longer than any past shutdowns. A civil service retirement benefit is based on service time.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.