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Furloughed federal workers should start getting their back pay in a few days

If all goes according to plan, workers should receive checks next week.

Furloughed federal workers protest the 2019 government shutdown. Those employees should start to receive back pay soon with the standoff coming to an end.
Mark Makela/Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

Roughly 800,000 federal workers missed two paychecks because of the longest government shutdown in US history. But with the government finally set to reopen, they should receive the pay they missed in just a few days — if all goes according to plan.

Congress has already passed, and President Donald Trump already signed, a bill guaranteeing back pay for affected federal workers (and making the same guarantee for future shutdowns). Now that President Trump has relented on funding for his Mexican border wall and announced he would sign a short-term spending bill ending the shutdown, those employees will start to be made whole under that legislation.

In announcing a deal to end the shutdown and fund the government until February 15, Trump promised that federal workers would get their back pay “very quickly or as soon as possible.” Congress will still need to approve the three-week spending plan, but lawmakers are expected to sign off on the agreement with little drama.

As Vox’s Li Zhou previously reported, the back pay bill said federal employees should be paid as soon as possible — so workers wouldn’t necessarily have to wait until their next paycheck to receive the income they’d missed. However, the affected agencies and the companies they’ve contracted to run payroll will still need to formally agree to allow that off-schedule paycheck, according to federal union officials.

If they do, then paychecks should be delivered in a minimum of three days, because the federal government usually takes a few days to process its payroll before the checks are dispersed. Assuming the government reopens on Friday or over the weekend, that means checks should arrive sometime next week.

Otherwise, the back pay would be part of the next regular paycheck for workers after the government is reopened.

The news is less rosy for federal contractors, however, who were not guaranteed back pay by the legislation Congress passed. Many of these people are in low-wage jobs, such as janitors and security guards and cafeteria workers at federal buildings. One Democratic senator has introduced a bill that would pay those workers for missed paychecks as well, but there is no sign so far that legislation is going to move.

The coming checks should hopefully bring an end to a trying month for hundreds of thousands of government employees who were suddenly left without their income as Congress fought with President Trump over his border wall demands. A record number of federal workers filed for unemployment benefits this month — 36,000 — and there were widespread reports of furloughed workers forced to resort to odd jobs and even renting out their homes to make up for the pay they were missing.

In no small part because nearly a million people were suddenly not getting paid, the shuttered government had been a significant drag on the broader US economy too. As Vox’s Emily Stewart has reported:

Federal government workers will eventually get back pay when the shutdown ends, but right now they’re not injecting as much money into the economy as they would have, and many are struggling to pay their mortgages, credit card bills, and rent. One furloughed employee even pawned her wedding ring for cash, NBC reported — though relatives pooled money to buy it back.

Businesses that depend on federal workers as their customers — say, a deli next to a government building — are losing money they may never recover. The same goes for contractors.

The crisis should soon pass, finally, and federal workers will start to be made whole. The question now is whether they will find themselves in the same predicament in just a few weeks.

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