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Who gets laid off during government shutdowns? Am I at risk of getting furloughed?

Hundreds of thousands of federal employees could go without a paycheck if Congress fails to pass appropriation bills to fund the government.

Large swaths of government employees could be furloughed

A government shutdown looms over the federal government as GOP hardliners in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives want to use their narrow majority to push through steep spending cuts. Even if they can garner the necessary votes from their 221-212 majority, the proposals would be dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

They would also go against an agreement that Speaker Kevin McCarthy hammered out this past spring during the debt ceiling crisis with President Biden. The United States narrowly avoided defaulting on its fiscal obligations to make good on the money it has borrowed for past spending.

Congress has until the end of the week to pass the necessary legislation to approve or extend funding the government and get it to President Biden for his signature. Failure to do so would result in the federal agencies not being able to continue full operations and mean hundreds of thousands of federal employees going without a paycheck as well as a many being furloughed to boot.

Which federal workers are exempt from government shutdowns?

A shutdown is essentially the result of the federal government no longer being able to pay for the full extent of agencies and programs that are usually in place. Without enough funding to cover the vast expenditure some agencies, and therefore some workers’ jobs, are temporarily cut.

However certain essential services will have their funding maintained throughout the potential shutdown to ensure that workers can continue to carry out their jobs even though they won’t be paid.

The following services will remain functioning throughout a shutdown:

  • Border protection
  • In-hospital medical care
  • Air traffic control
  • Law enforcement
  • Power grid maintenance

During the longest government shutdown ever, increased absenteeism among air traffic controllers, which eventually led to New York City’s LaGuardia airport issuing a ground stop and slowing traffic in some of the nation’s busiest airspace, is credited with putting an end to the shutdown.

While federal employees are guaranteed to receive backpay, both those who must continue working and those who are laid idle, government contractors may not be so lucky.

Who decides which jobs are affected by a shutdown?

Congress has to pass 12 different appropriation bills to provide the funding needed to ensure the government keeps running but has passed none ahead of the 30 September deadline as of publication.

There is a chance that only some of these bills are passed, which would dictate which areas of the federal government are able to keep functioning fully.

Marc Goldwein, senior policy director at the CRFB, explains: “Every shutdown is different — there is a lot of discretion in the agencies about what they can continue to do.”

He adds: “Everything that’s not essential has to stop, but there are different definitions of essential work.”

Federally-run sites like museums and national parks could close as they did in 2013, or remain open with services cut like during the 2018-2019 shutdown.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is of particular importance at the moment with covid still ever present and flu season getting under way, could see some public health activities suffer. Likewise, FDA food inspections could be delayed and those for hazardous waste sites, drinking water and chemical facilities stopped.

Some agencies may have to send up to 90 percent or more of staff home while the shutdown lasts. Other agencies like the IRS would go unscathed and continue operating as normal because funding would not expire.