Through many years of work I’ve suffered layoffs, cutbacks, business closings, and pay reductions. I’ve also learned one very important rule about working: there is no such thing as a guaranteed income. Employment contracts break. Unions only have so much clout. Companies pack up and leave. People get fired. So why do we provide the benefit of a guaranteed income to federal employees when they face the same kind of job insecurity that other American workers are subjected to each and every day?
The easy answer is that lawmakers are so terrified of blame for the current shutdown that they will force taxpayers to guarantee pay for furloughed federal workers.
S. 24: fair treatment = guaranteed income
The necessity to hang the fallout from the shutdown on the White House helped Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) turn all federal employees into near-destitute government dependents:
Many federal workers live paycheck to paycheck. They have mortgages and car loans to pay, day care expenses to cover, and food to put on the table.
And even while they struggle to pay these bills, furloughed employees face the stress and anxiety of not knowing whether or not they will be paid when the shutdown ends.1
That’s the rhetoric behind the “Government Employee Fair Treatment Act of 2019.” S. 24’s title implies that it’s fair to demand that taxpayers pay government workers a guaranteed income whether or not they are working. Not only are these workers guaranteed back pay for the current shutdown, S. 24 also applies to “potential future shutdowns.”2
Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY) asserts that federal employees are entitled to labor market certainty, another benefit wholly unfamiliar to private sector workers:
It is my hope that this bill will at least provide some certainty to federal workers ensuring a full paycheck is eventually coming. However, it is unnecessary to hinge the livelihood of hard-working Americans on border security efforts in Congress.3
It should not be necessary to pay for work that isn’t being done, but Rogers also indulged the argument that these workers are dependent on the government to get by:
We need to reopen the government, pay our faithful employees who are now struggling to make ends meet, and get back to the business of serving the American people.4
Washington: ordinary American workers don’t matter
S.24 went to President Trump yesterday. Will he sign it? He does not have much of a choice and as far as employees who are working without pay are concerned it’s the right thing to do. Those who are not working are experiencing the same uncertainty and loss of income that frequently befalls those who don’t work for the government.
Cardin backs paycheck guarantee
When Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) introduced the bill he spoke of a paycheck guarantee:
Passage of our bill may not answer the question of when a paycheck will come, but it will guarantee that a paycheck will come when this shutdown finally ends,” said Senator Cardin.5
Maine Republican Susan Collins and Arizona’s Lisa Murkowski are the only two GOP cosponsors. Collins backed the Democratic Party line on guaranteed pay:
Civil servants bring dedication, competence, and experience to their work, and I appreciate all that they do for our government and our nation. Our legislation would guarantee that they are paid retroactively as soon as appropriations are restored.6
Taxpaying American workers should be outraged, especially those who have lost jobs in the past and had federal taxes removed from their unemployment checks.
This is wrongheaded thinking that makes government workers special and helps justify another problem: the enormous retirement pension debt that cripples states and forces higher taxes on private sector retirees.
Job uncertainty is a fact of American life. Working for the Federal Government should not grant an automatic exemption from the risks of the government job market including temporary shutdowns and appropriation delays. Neither should it guarantee an income unless workers are still on the job.
UPDATE January 17, 2019: “back pay” bill signed, taxpayers fund no work
Yesterday President Trump signed S. 24, the guaranteed income bill that pays government employees for “wages lost, work performed, or leave used”7 during the shutdown. The legislation is also being referred to as a “back pay” bill even though furloughed workers are not performing any work on behalf of taxpayers. Of course we are also paying lawmakers for not doing their jobs and dragging this out with no exit in sight, so perhaps this makes sense. They are the ones who put S. 24 on Trump’s desk to ensure everyone in Washington will be taken care of.
Taxpayers? No matter how we are impacted by the shutdown at least we have the privilege of paying laid off federal employees and legislators for nothing.
1. “House Passes Bill to Help Federal Employees Harmed by Shutdown.” Committee on Oversight and Reform. January 11, 2019. https://oversight.house.gov/news/press-releases/house-passes-bill-to-help-federal-employees-harmed-by-shutdown, retrieved January 14, 2019.
3. “U.S. House Approves Back Pay for Federal Employees Impacted by Partial Shutdown.” Hal Rogers. January 11, 2019. https://halrogers.house.gov/press-releases?id=1B33258D-DFA9-40DC-A8D7-E89278FA6982, retrieved January 14, 2019.
5. “Cardin Bill to Protect Federal and Other Government Workers Hurt During Shutdowns Passes Senate.” Ben Cardin. January 10, 2019. https://www.cardin.senate.gov/newsroom/press/release/cardin-bill-to-protect-federal-and-other-government-workers-hurt-during-shutdowns-passes-
senate, retrieved January 14, 2019.
7. “Bill Announcement.” Whitehouse.gov. January 16, 2019. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/bill-announcement-19/, retrieved January 17, 2019.