What Will Shutdown Mean For Federal Workers?

Some 1.5 million people are not sure if they're going to work next week. Congress has until this weekend to reach a budget resolution or face a government shutdown. Federal employees are being left in the dark about whether they're expected to work, and will be able to receive paychecks, should the fed close shop. To understand what a shutdown might mean to federal workers, and the people who rely on their work, host Michel Martin speaks with Mike Causey, Federal News Radio senior correspondent.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Next we return to the pressing story here at home, the possibility of a government shutdown if Congress can't come up with a budget compromise by Friday. We wondered what happened to the two million or so federal workers and what it means to the rest of us.

So we've called upon Mike Causey, senior correspondent at Federal News Radio. He's also the former Federal Diary columnist for The Washington Post. He is the master of all things federal. And he's with us now from his studios. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. MIKE CAUSEY (Senior Correspondent, Federal News Radio): Oh, delighted to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, actually, we were thinking about the fact that the White House has actually been kind of vague about what happens in a shutdown.

Mr. CAUSEY: Yes, they have.

MARTIN: Do you agree with that? And why do you think that it?

Mr. CAUSEY: I agree completely. Yeah. There is - federal workers don't have a plan B because they haven't seen plan A yet. But the OMB has apparently instructed agencies not to discuss details of what's going to happen. And this could be because they don't want to cause panic. It could be for political reasons, you know, a little like playing draw poker.

MARTIN: Well, maybe we could go back to the 1995 shutdown and say what was the game plan then?

Mr. CAUSEY: It's a good starter. I mean, the analogy I would think is World War I versus World War II. Many of the same players, the same turf, but very different things. And this shutdown, if it happens, is not going to be your father's shutdown. Part of the reason is that the composition of the federal government has changed dramatically since that time. The events of 9/11 changed the face of the government and now you have so many more people who are involved in what you would consider essential in emergency jobs: homeland security, defense, policing, border patrol, that kind of thing.

So my guess is - and it's just a guess - that there won't be as large a percentage of the federal workforce furloughed this time around, if there is a furlough, as was the case in the winter of '95-'96, when they got 800,000 people who were out for - some of them were out for 21 days.

MARTIN: So let's just say employees were considered essential and we can, shall we assume that most of those are people involved in national security and security...

Mr. CAUSEY: And, you know, VA hospitals.

MARTIN: Hospitals.

Mr. CAUSEY: And it will be interesting to see what the IRS and Social Security do. And this may be one of the psychological poems that both sides are using. Because as you well know, what is it - Social Security is the third rail of American politics - touch it and you're dead. Well, what if people start hinting that the Social Security checks might be late? And there has been talk that while the IRS will happily process your check if you're paying your taxes, that they may slow down a bit in processing your refund.

And there's a wild card in this equation, too. Michel, most people aren't aware of the fact that government contractors outnumber government employees by a huge factor. Paul Light at the Brookings Institution some years ago estimated that there were six contractors for every one federal employee.

MARTIN: Well, what happens to them?

Mr. CAUSEY: That's a good question. Well, contractors typically don't pay people if they don't work. If they - and if you work alongside a federal worker who has been furloughed or if you're working a federal office or deal with it and it's been closed or you can't get in the building, you won't work.

And the contractors that I've talked to who went through the '95-'96 thing said that most of them were not paid. And unlike federal workers who at the end of the furlough Congress voted their salary, so they were made whole. But the contractors weren't, because, you know, no work, no pay.

MARTIN: So, if the government shuts down, the workers will eventually come back to work. Will they be paid for that time? And you're saying the federal workers probably will, but the contractors probably won't?

Mr. CAUSEY: You know, not this time. And without - I always hate to hype things. But in the past we assume anytime there was a furlough, and there have been several, that Congress would make people whole. But you've got a different ballgame here. There are several members of Congress who are pushing for a two-week furlough for federal workers, which would mean 10 working days. And they were talking about one day per month.

But one of the scenarios is what happens if we have a furlough and it runs a week or two and then Congress just says, OK, let's consider that the furlough and just let that be it and not pay people back. So, you know, without scaring the wits out of people, it is entirely possible that if there's a furlough, they would not be paid this time.

MARTIN: So, who stands to lose the most? If you're saying workers may be paid even if they don't work, people may or may not receive their tax refunds on time. They may or may not - it seems to me that there's also a cost to this, even if the government shuts down, that there is a backend cost to this?

Mr. CAUSEY: Well, look - just look at the Washington area. Drive out to Dulles Airport and you see government contractors, you know, huge buildings and this area is afloat on the federal dollar. Well, one point, and you make a good point there, a difference between the '95-'96 furlough and a possible 2011 furlough is the economy. The job market is terrible, many people's houses are underwater, an awful lot of people, I suspect, are living paycheck to paycheck and these include federal workers at all levels, but particularly lower level people.

So I think the economic hit on the individual employee will be tougher this time around. And, you know, the prospect of a 21-day furlough, which seems impossible, that could ruin some people.

MARTIN: Mike Causey is a former Federal Diary columnist for The Washington Post. He's currently a senior correspondent at Federal News Radio and he was kind enough to join us from the studios of Federal News Radio here in the Washington, D.C. area. Mike, thanks so much for talking to us.

Mr. CAUSEY: Delighted. Anytime.

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