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Federal government shutdown FAQ

A federal government shutdown is a rare event.

The last time it happened Bill Clinton was president, the World Trade Center was still standing and nobody had heard of Bernie Madoff, Paris Hilton or three inferior "Star Wars" prequels.

Yet more than 15 years later, many of the same questions remain about a government shutdown. A few basic questions have answers, while more detailed ones rely on the whims of a constantly changing political environment.

But here are a few basic questions.

What is a government shutdown?

A shutdown would happen if Congress and the president cannot work out a deal to appropriate money to agencies for their operations and current funding measures end. Technically, the government runs out of money and has to stop operating.

What specifically shuts down?

If the government closes, agencies would launch their plans to downshift to a skeletal crew of essential employees.

Only a few jobs would be exempt from stopping during a shutdown. Those jobs include those that protect government property, such as federal buildings, or those that protect life, such as health care services or troop support. Often, Social Security Administration offices remain open and operational, as well as offices related to Medicaid and Medicare services.

Otherwise, senior agency officials will make specific decisions about jobs, although most employees would be affected. Still, work would be halted on a program-by-program basis.

If you're unsure, ask your manager.

Do I come to work?

The answer is it depends.


There are two types of shutdowns. In a “soft shutdown,” federal employees would come to work but could not do anything “productive,” that is, anything to carry out the central duties of the agency. They could clean up their desks.

A “hard shutdown” would mean employees are furloughed from work. Only those few exempt employee would come in.

The soft shutdown would only occur if the president believes there’s a chance for a rapid compromise with Congress. Hard shutdowns would signal a bleaker picture.

Will I get paid?

It depends. Congress has historically reimbursed federal employees for wages not paid during  the furlough. Either way, shutdown furloughs are not considered breaks in service and are generally creditable for retaining benefits and seniority.

Ask your managers for more details regarding your agency.

What if there’s pressing work that I need to get done and the furlough would give me a chance to catch up?

Employees will be turned away from the office. Contractors too will be turned away.

The government has a prohibition on taking voluntary work because it could be asked to pay for the work that was done and officials don’t want to get into that situation.

How will contractors be affected?

Contracts providing products and services won’t be affected in the same way despite using fiscal 2011 money.

Companies offering products will face changes in when and where they would make their deliveries, but the government likely will have already paid the companies for those products. However, services aren’t paid for when the contract is signed. Those companies may be paid a number of different ways, from quarterly payments for work to jobs done per day.

As a contractor, what should I do to prepare?

Contractors should talk with the contracting officers about what’s ahead and how to get things in order before a shutdown would happen.

Recognize contracting officers have a key role in giving guidance on what to do but remember that many decisions are made above their pay grade.

Sources: John Cooney, former general counsel at the Office of Management and Budget and now partner at the Venable law firm. Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president and counsel at the Professional Services Council. The Congressional Research Service.

Posted by Matthew Weigelt on Feb 24, 2011 at 12:11 PM


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