POLITICS
09/25/2013 01:24 pm ET Updated Sep 25, 2013

U.S. Attorney Employees Warned: 'Real Possibility' You Won't Get Back Pay If Government Shuts Down

WASHINGTON -- U.S. attorney Ronald Machen Jr. is warning his office that if Congress can't agree on a bill to keep the government funded, federal workers may not receive back pay like they did in previous shutdowns.

Machen, who oversees cases brought in the District of Columbia, delivered the news in a letter to his colleagues Wednesday morning.

"During a shutdown, federal employees are placed on furlough status, which means that they neither come to work nor get paid," he wrote. "Certain categories of employees can be excepted from a furlough, such as those whose work is important to maintaining public safety. ... For those who are not working during the shutdown, there is a real possibility that you would not be paid for the period of the shutdown."

Back pay is not guaranteed for federal workers furloughed during a shutdown, as Machen noted. After the shutdowns of 1995 and 1996, Congress authorized back pay for federal employees. But this time -- with an emphasis on cutting government spending and a Republican Party that largely believes bureaucrats are already overpaid -- that might not happen.

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, is similarly pessimistic.

"It's a different time and a different Congress," Kelley told The Huffington Post this week. "There are too many people who remember [1995 and 1996] or were told about it by someone and I want them to know that is not a guarantee."

"I'm telling employees not to assume they would be paid," she continued, "and that adds to the frustration and the anger. They're tired of being caught in the middle of this."

One House Republican aide told The Washington Post that conservatives may find it hard to justify back pay for "work they [federal employees] didn't do."

Several Republicans contacted by The Huffington Post were not yet willing to say whether they would approve back pay for furloughed workers in the case of a shutdown. A couple, however, said they would.

"Historically, federal workers have always been given back pay after a government shutdown and Dr. Burgess supports doing that again in the event of a shutdown this year," said Bruce Harvie, communications director for Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas).

A spokesman for Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) said the congressman "believes that the federal government should stand by the commitment and dedication of federal employees and would support any effort that ensures these employees receive the full salary they have earned."

Read Machen's full letter:

From: Machen Jr., Ronald C. (USADC)

Sent: Wednesday, September 25, 2013 10:48 AM

To: USADC-All Employees

Subject: Government Shutdown

Dear Colleagues,

As you have probably seen in the news, Congress has yet to pass a bill to fund the government after September 30. Without an appropriations bill in place, there is once again the possibility of a government shutdown. It is impossible for us to predict what will happen, but we are hopeful that a government shutdown will be averted as it has several times in the recent past. At the same time, we want to make sure you understand what could happen if a shutdown were to occur.

During a shutdown, federal employees are placed on furlough status, which means that they neither come to work nor get paid. Certain categories of employees can be excepted from a furlough, such as those whose work is important to maintaining public safety. Because of our Office’s important law enforcement function, it is likely that many of our employees would be excepted from the furlough and would be asked to continue working during the shutdown. However, it is also likely that we would be required to scale back operations so that some employees would be furloughed. For those who are not working during the shutdown, there is a real possibility that you would not be paid for the period of the shutdown. For those who are working, your pay could be delayed until after the shutdown ends. If we receive word that a shutdown is likely and that we will need to designate employees excepted from the furlough, we will notify each of you about your status.

While there is a great deal of uncertainty about the possibility of furloughs, we definitively know at this point that until a new appropriations bill is enacted we cannot obligate the government to pay for any expenditures incurred after September 30. That means that we cannot pay for items including travel, transcripts, expert witnesses, and supplies if those goods or services are not furnished before October 1. While we understand these spending restrictions will significantly hamper our ability to perform our mission, the lack of a funding bill makes them unavoidable.

I appreciate your continued patience in these uncertain circumstances. Although we cannot provide many details at this point, we wanted to provide you with the information we have so that you can prepare for this possibility.

We will provide an update in the coming days as we learn more about the likelihood of a shutdown.

Best, Ron

Jared Gilmour and Farah Mohamed contributed reporting.

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