WASHINGTON — Last time there was a government shutdown, furloughed federal workers were able to recover their lost pay. They may not be so lucky this time.
Congress would have to decide whether an estimated 800,000 government employees could recoup back wages if they are forced to stay out of work. When workers were sidelined during the most recent partial shutdowns of 1995 and 1996, Congress quickly voted to make them whole.
But that was during flush economic times and before tea party conservatives wielded influence over GOP lawmakers, seeking smaller government and deeper spending cuts.
"It was a very different economic time back then, and a very different Congress," said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. "I think there is such a vocalized hostility by too many in Congress today against the federal work force and federal agencies."
That warning was echoed by Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., who predicts it's "highly unlikely" government workers would be reimbursed by Congress this time.
"There are going to be disruptions to our economy all the way down the line," said Moran, whose suburban Washington district includes thousands of federal employees.
At least one House Republican dismissed those fears. Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., said he has no interest in penalizing federal workers and would vote to reimburse lost pay.
"In my opinion, federal workers, their children and families, should not suffer because (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid and President Barack Obama think a shutdown is good politics," said Ross, who considers himself a tea party Republican.
A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, did not respond to a request for comment.
The disparate effects of a shutdown, depending on where government workers are employed, have drawn criticism. By law, Obama and lawmakers will continue to draw salaries even if the government shuts down.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said lawmakers shouldn't be paid if the impasse between Obama and Congress forces a shutdown. He's vowed to donate his salary to charity or give it back to the U.S. Treasury. And Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said he would not accept his federal salary during a shutdown.
According to the federal Office of Professional Management, nearly all government employees will be furloughed in a shutdown, except for certain workers who conduct emergency services or perform other work deemed essential. Those employees who keep working under an exception would recover pay for hours worked once Congress passes – and the president signs – new legislation to fund the government.
But Congress would have to make a separate determination whether nonessential workers could get back pay. After the 1995 and 1996 shutdowns ended, Congress approved back pay so quickly that federal employees never missed a paycheck.
The shutdown, in November 1995, lasted six days and furloughed about 800,000 federal employees. The next, a partial shutdown, lasted three weeks, from mid-December 1995 to early January 1996, and furloughed about 240,000 workers.
Thousands of state government employees have been furloughed without pay in recent years to help ease state budget woes. In California, for example, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered state workers to take two unpaid days off each month in 2009 and later extended the furloughs to three days a month.
Why shouldn't government workers take a similar hit? Kelley, the federal employee union president, says federal workers are simply bystanders caught in the middle of a political dispute, not part of a calculated plan to save money.
"This is not about a budget that is attempting to cut costs through furloughs," she said. "This is a situation where the parties cannot come to an agreement on a budget. Rather than stepping up and doing their jobs, they are just choosing to do nothing and shutting the government down."