Why Do Federal Workers Get Paid For Not Working?

The five week federal partial shutdown is over and US federal workers the world over are breathing a sigh of relief. Paychecks will be coming again, and for many it also means returning to work. Congress and federal agencies will move swiftly to award back pay to all federal workers for the entire period of the shutdown. That’s right–all workers-essential employees who had to work and nonessential employees who did not work.

Wait a minute. Even the federal employees who didn’t work will be getting back pay? Whoa. Hey, we are deeply sympathetic to those federal workers who are being penalized for nothing more than political shenanigans in the House of Representatives (border security or no border security). That situation is just patently unfair. But you know what–out here in the cold where Walmart, Amazon, Home Depot, and Verizon rule–you get furloughed and you don’t get back pay. It is just that simple.

Not only do federal workers get pensions, not only are they paid more than private sector workers, not only do they have shorter work weeks, not only do they get more leave and higher medical premium subsidies, but they are guaranteed their pay whether they work or not? Are you kidding? How is that a bargain for the taxpayer?

That some federal workers get paid to sit at home is an insult to all those folks in uniform who had to work without pay to make sure the country stays safe. The TSA had to work. The Army had to work. The Coast Guard had to work. Various federal law enforcement agencies had to work. They had to work and without pay. Those folks earned their back pay, and then some. What did furloughed workers earn. What did they accomplish? How did they further the interests for the US taxpayer? They didn’t. So why do they get back pay?

Again, I am not saying that furloughs are fair. I’m not saying that not getting an opportunity to earn a wage as a federal worker is just. I’m not saying that federal workers don’t have families and themselves to clothe, house, and feed like everyone else. I’m not saying it is fair that federal workers should be required to use up their paid leave during furloughs. I’m just saying that federal workers do not have superior rights to private sector workers. You don’t work in the private sector (and you don’t have leave), you don’t get paid.

1/28/2019 Note: The CBO ran a study in 2012 that found that total compensation–salary and benefits–was higher for federal workers than it was for private sector workers. The disparity was staggering for those with just high school diplomas or some college classes; those with bachelor degrees and master degrees enjoyed greater total compensation but not necessarily higher salaries and PhD’s are better off in the private sector. In the Washington DC metro I have found that federal salaries and compensation for any education level (outside that for in-demand specialists) are far superior to that found in the private sector–but this is a regional phenomenon due largely to being the location of the US capitol. 

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