Should Furloughed Government Employees Be Paid During the Shutdown?

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furloughed government employees

Happy Friday everyone! It has been another great week in the Frugal Rules home as we signed a pretty big client this week. You never know when business will come in when you run your own business and these past few weeks have been absolutely crazy busy, but that’s a good problem to have – right?! 🙂 As I keep telling people, I’ll take crazy over crickets any day. It’s also hard to believe that FinCon, the Conference for Financial Bloggers is next week. We’re excited to get there and meet everyone.

One other note on the blogging front – I will be introducing another staff writer to Frugal Rules next Tuesday! I’ve had this writer hired for some time now, and had been waiting for the site redesign to be done but don’t want to keep her good content from you any longer. So, make sure to come back Tuesday for our new staff writer and excited to have her addition to the community here.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock lately, you likely know that the federal government has been shut down since last week. As an aside, I would recommend my friend Grayson’s article from last week where he gave his thoughts on the issue and could not agree more.

In my opinion, neither party is immune from blame in this issue and we (for reasons passing understanding) continue to re-elect these fools and it’s incumbent upon them to do their job as opposed to name calling and complete unwillingness to work together. Amazingly, although they can’t find a way to work together to pass a budget for the country, members of Congress are still paid for their “work.” At least their unwillingness to work together changed a bit last week in the House with regards to giving back pay to furloughed government employees. From what I have read the issue of paying furloughed government employees has hit a rough patch in the Senate, though I suspect it’ll pass as we have paid furloughed government employees in every instance the government has had a shutdown.

Do Furloughed Government Employees Deserve to Be Given Back Pay?

As this is such a political issue, I am going to try and keep my bias out of it. I would like to get out of the way first, that I fully believe the military should be paid during the government shutdown as they defend our country and put their lives on the line so we can have freedom – should they be paid? Absolutely!

At issue is whether or not other government employees who have been furloughed should be paid. There are at least two sides, and likely, more to this hot button issue. On one side you have those that would argue furloughed government employees being paid is tantamount to a paid vacation. They get paid to stay home and arguably have to do nothing to get that pay.

On the other hand you have those that say that it’s only fair to pay furloughed government employees as they have no choice in the matter and the current circumstances in Washington are beyond their control. Viewing the issue from this side, you could say that it’s only fair to pay furloughed government employees as they can’t be expected to be held responsible for something they have no hand in.

While I think that both sides have some merit in their argument, I was discussing this issue with a family member over the weekend and they brought up a very good point. They brought up the issue of what happens to furloughed employees of private companies such as those who were laid off at the height of The Great Recession. Were many of those employees paid? No, they weren’t. They were sent home for weeks or months at a time and while they could keep their job, many were not paid during that time of being furloughed. I had numerous friends who ran into that issue themselves. Did it suck? Of course it did. Did they think it was unfair? Of course they did, but it is simply a fact of life. After thinking over this question of whether or not furloughed government employees should be given back pay or not, it really causes me to question how different the situation is. Other than having imbecilic superiors who can’t or won’t work together I would tend to think that there’s really no huge difference.

Honestly, where I come down is that I’d rather not see anyone furloughed, whether they work for the government or in the private sector. I think most people would gladly rather work than go without pay for an indefinite period of time, sitting around idle waiting to receive back pay that ultimately might not come. Even worse is the fact that so many Americans aren’t set up to handle a sudden halt in their paychecks as most people live paycheck to paycheck without a financial safety net. That to me is another real, albeit underlying tragedy in this whole situation – our lack of financial literacy as a nation.

Where Do We See Financial Literacy in all of this Mess?

Go figure, I bring up financial literacy in something like this – but I do think we see the lacking of it in regards to the issue of furloughed government employees and them being given back pay. The obvious issue with this is that our government can’t keep spending under control. We’d rather spend ourselves into oblivion as opposed to severely tightening our belts and sincerely looking to get our financial house in order. It would seem to me that many in our federal government could stand a few lessons in financial literacy. Specifically, I’d like to see our lawmakers demonstrate that they know what happens when we spend more than we make, but that’s a much bigger fish to fry.

More practically I see the need for increased financial literacy for the rest of us. I’ve either read or listened to numerous stories over the past week of furloughed government employees who don’t know what they’ll do if they’re not paid as they’re living paycheck to paycheck – at best. Some of those issues were somewhat out of their control, like in the case of their insurance/medical needs, though many were not out of their control. Many were because they’re not living financially disciplined lives and have nowhere to turn when an emergency occurs. I know that spouting about financial literacy will do little now in terms of helping those in need, but I can only believe their future selves will be greatly improved by an increased teaching of financial literacy.


What are your thoughts – should furloughed government employees receive back pay? Why or why not…and keep it clean.  😉  What fun things do you have planned this weekend?


Photo courtesy of: Pamela Stocks

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I'm the founder of Frugal Rules, a Dad, husband and veteran of the financial services industry. I'm passionate about helping people learn from my mistakes so that they can enjoy the freedom that comes from living frugally. I'm also a freelance writer, and regularly contribute to GoBankingRates, Investopedia, Lending Tree and more.


  • Matt Becker says:

    I think it’s hard to answer this question in a vacuum because it’s really part of the larger question of how our government is going to control its spending going forward. Employee pay is just one small piece of that larger question. I can definitely see both sides and honestly would be fine with either as long as their was a reasonable big-picture plan in place to run our country’s finances with some kind of responsibility.

    • John says:

      I agree that it’s hard to a certain extent, though I think it’s a bit separate from the spending issue. I think the spending issue is one all its own with the pay issue being separate.

  • I don’t think they should be paid, mainly because I think it should be no different than how employees get treated when private companies have furloughs. I’ll just leave my comment at that.

    This weekend I’m finally going on a date with my wife. We work so much that we have trouble making time for dates, so it should be fun. Also have my friend’s Dad coming over to trim our trees and cut down an apple tree. Getting ready for winter…

    Looking forward to the new staff writer. I might have my friend write some investing articles for the site. It’s always great to have new perspectives.

    • John says:

      That definitely is a valid point DC and one that I think has some good merit.

      Sounds like you’ve got a good weekend planned. I can relate to being so busy that things like date nights fall by the wayside. We just have to schedule them otherwise it doesn’t happen like it should.

  • I think they should ultimately be paid. It isn’t fair for working professionals to take a paycut for something that is out of their control.

    • John says:

      That definitely is a valid point Holly, especially when the buffoons in Congress still get paid even though they continue with their idiocy.

  • I also see both sides of it…but there is also another issue. I know a couple of government workers who are considered “essential” So “essential” workers are working even though they are not getting paid. If furloughed workers got back pay for not going to work…wouldn’t that be unfair to the “essential” workers who had to work? It is just a complete mess and I hope they resolve this soon.

    • John says:

      I had not thought of that Andrew, thanks for pointing that out. That is definitely a valid point to consider. And I agree, it is just one massive cluster that needs to be fixed.

  • Alice @ Earning My Two Cents says:

    Not paying furloughed workers causes a financial crisis for them and a large number of late mortgage payments and tightened purse strings, which can have negative fallout for the economy as a whole. Additionally, there is the problem of essential workers (like me) who work during the shutdown and furloughed workers who don’t work and both end up with paychecks. This leads to a morale issue.

    • John says:

      Thanks for your comment Alice. Like I said to Andrew above I had not thought of that issue and believe that it certainly a valid concern and would hate to be in that situation myself.

      That said, I think the financial crisis issue points back to my comment about financial literacy. If someone has an appropriate EF in place then they could potentially weather the storm for a bit. Of course, some of the situations I read were pointing out that some of the situations the people were in dire straits because of something like medical/insurance costs – that I get. But, if it’s out of plain misspending or lack of discipline then that is a different issue all together.

  • Ok, so I don’t mean to be controversial but this has been on my mind a lot lately.

    I love documentaries and I’ve been watching a lot about debt, food stamps, hunger, violence- a vast array of major issues. I think a HUGE problem in this country is people having multiple children when they can’t afford them. I can’t imagine how much we’d save on government assistance programs if there was some way to regulate reproduction. I know that SOUNDS crazy and I don’t want to be like China or anything and I don’t think that wealthy people should be the only people allowed to have children, I just notice that the root of soooo sooo many problems seems to be children whose parents can’t afford to support them financially, emotionally, etc.

    • John says:

      Hey Stefanie, I touched on that a little bit a few weeks ago in my food stamps post. I agree that it can be an issue in certain situations, but I am not going to open that can of worms. 🙂 That said, I think the minute we start regulating reproduction we instantly become China and see issues like baby girls not being wanted, class issues, etc.

  • Great question and very controversial John. While I do hate that government workers have been furloughed, I don’t think they should be back paid. Yes, it sucks to not be paid, but these are life’s little lessons. Never think your job or paycheck is a guarantee. Never just live on the line of being able to make it or fall apart. This situation should be a wake-up call for many to get their financial life in order. This could also provide the spark that many need to find other means of income along with their job. That is the better way to create security.

    • John says:

      Thanks Grayson and you know me…I like to stir the pot every once in a while. I completely agree on your point. I hate that they’re being caught in the crosshairs of this, but life is life and these things unfortunately happen. I do hope it does wake up some, though that remains to be seen.

  • So many controversial topics this week! I’ll say that I think the workers should get their pay, but only because their employer is a moron, and although workers have known for years that their boss runs in the red, there really wasn’t much notice on the furlough. When Jim has had furlough days for the past several years, the employees knew it at the beginning of the year and could either plan for it, or I guess they could have quit if they didn’t like it. At least the state has to balance the budget every year, and everyone has to deal with the cuts. I think they should pass a law that in the future that government shutdowns result in no pay for non-essential employees. That way no one can say they weren’t warned. It really is not fair that private sector works get no compensation in similar situations, but often the stability of a government job is why people deal with all the red tape. Yes, people should plan better, but they don’t. I do think Congress and the President could go a long way if they would donate all their pay during the shutdown to some worthy cause. It is no not fair that they get paid during this mess.

    I think we will hit the pumpkin patch this weekend and I’m getting ready for Fincon. I hope to see you there!

    • John says:

      I know Kim! I like to do my part to stir the pot. 😉

      That’s a great point about having something enacted so non-essentials would not be paid. At least then they’d know and be able to plan accordingly. I agree that many people will not plan better…I mean look at what they see their leaders do, why would they want to?

      Sounds like a fun weekend. And yes, we’re both going to be at FinCon. 🙂

  • I understand that it’s out of their hands, but if I was furloughed at my current job in the private sector I wouldn’t get back pay. Plus if anyone has a gripe it should be the “essential” employees. Those people are working without pay through this mess with limited staff. If/when the back pay is granted they should have a huge bone to pick as they had to work like crazy while their “non-essential” counterparts essentially got a free paid vacation.

    On another note, if there are “non-essential” workers, why were they hired in the first place? Sounds like government waste at its finest.

    • John says:

      “if there are “non-essential” workers, why were they hired in the first place?” Lol, I love it JC! The thing is that you’re right on. It does go to show the waste our government is guilty of. I agree, those that have the true gripe are the “essential” workers, I’d be ticked if I were them.

  • I honestly wish there was a way you could opt in our opt out of federal government services. I would certainly opt out at this point, but my taxes are what pays everyone else, so I know that’s not an option.

  • I agree with DC that their benefits should be no different than those of private businesses, and I also agree with Andrew’s point too that those “necessary” workers who have to keep working should absolutely get back pay, but most of all, John, as you mentioned, this is a great lesson for all of us that NOW is the time to get our financial crap together, because we can’t trust the government or anyone else to do it for us. Great post!

    • John says:

      Thanks Laurie! See, Nicole softened it for me. 🙂 I agree on both of those counts as well. You’re right on Laurie – this should be a striking wake up call for all of us to have our financial houses in order and not look to the government as some sort of example.

  • I can see it both ways. I would be upset if I was an essential worked but I would also be upset if I was furloughed. I guess in the end the true fair way is to treat them like privately furloughed employees. If you can’t handle the risk then maybe it is time for a different job?

    • John says:

      That’s a great point Lance, I agree that if they can’t take it then maybe it’s time to look elsewhere. Sadly, they’re not likely to find less risk anywhere else. That said, I would be upset as well, but what can you do?

  • anna says:

    I don’t really understand the point of the furlough/shutdown if they’re going to get paid, anyway?? I don’t want the employees to suffer, but at the same time if they’re going to get paid, anyway, then that’s not really fair to taxpayers who both have to pay taxes regardless and don’t have access to some federal programs, parks, etc.

  • krantcents says:

    Over the last 4 years , I suffered furlough days as a teacher. I strongly believe that I should be repaid for those days and so should the government workers.

    • John says:

      Sorry to hear that KC. As Kim said though, did the school inform you of those days at the start of the year? If so, I’d argue that those impacted could’ve prepared for it prior. I don’t like it and don’t think teachers should be impacted like that, but it’s an unfortunate fact of life.

  • The depression era point is solid.

    Financial literacy is certainly a huge lesson to come out of this mess and the importance of having an emergency fund, or some savings to fall back on. I can’t imagine the horror of suddenly being without a paycheck for an unknown period of time and not being sure if you can pay all the bills. Could cause a nasty debt cycle.

  • I wonder if the missed work will be made up for or if it will just be put behind schedule permanently. I bet most of it will be made up for once everyone gets back, which might require longer hours at that point. I used to work at the NIH and I think most scientists would experience more anxiety by not being able to run their experiments (and in many cases having to trash work in progress, wasting even more time and money) than by being at work. Not being paid for that period is adding insult to injury. Plus, how many furloughed workers are actually not working? Again as a scientist I’d probably be at home reading or writing papers so as not to fall too far behind – the tenure clock doesn’t stop for a shutdown! I know someone who has been furloughed who is still going in for half-days at least. She’s not a federal employee but a contractor so she has no expectation of getting back pay, yet is working anyway.

    • John says:

      That’s a very valid concern Emily. I’d imagine that it would be sitting there waiting for them and knowing the incompetence of the government they’d find some way to make it worse. I’ve read that it’s a considerable number that are not working, though who truly knows. Your field does provide some unique circumstances in this predicament because, you’re right, research isn’t really going to stop.

  • Micro says:

    I think they should be given back pay for two reasons. One is simply because the whole situation is not their fault and it’s not fair to punish them financially for the incompetence of others. I realize there are those who thinks it’s like giving them a paid vacation but I offer this counter point. Yes, they may not be working now but it’s not like their actual work takes a vacation too. When those workers get back, many of them will have overdue deadlines for projects, reports, etc. They are going to need to put in extra hours just to catch up on all those missed days. Without back pay, you are essentially asking them to work for free. I don’t think any of us would find that situation acceptable.

    • John says:

      I understand that argument Micro. I don’t think it’s fair or really right either. But, as we all know, life is simply not fair all the time. Given the fact that most, if not all, individuals furloughed in a private firm don’t get back pay that it’s a very valid point to say that maybe government workers should not either.

      In terms of having to make up work, I don’t know if they’d be expected to work for free. I’ve not read anything on that, though it wouldn’t surprise me with how backwards our government is.

      • Micro says:

        True, life is never fair. However, if one is furloughed in the private industry, it’s a good bet they know the duration. As such, one can make financial preparations and take on additional work elsewhere. As soon as the shutdown ends, all government works are expected to report back to work. It’s much harder to schedule any type of side hustle if you have to be able to report back to work at a moments notice.

        Another thought is the nature of the furlough. If it happens in a private firm, it’s because the business is having a budget crunch. Federal workers already went through something similar earlier this year. They had furlough days due to cuts mandated by the sequester. The furloughs now though would be more like the boss of the firm telling employees to go home because he doesn’t feel like paying them.

        The comment about working for free was an observation based on the rules of salaried employees (which government workers tend to be). You get paid the same whether you work 40 hours or 60. If employees come back and have to put in extra hours to catch up on missed work and aren’t compensated, in my eyes, they are working for free.

        • John says:

          Ok, I see what you’re saying with the working for free aspect. That said, I would agree with the fact that salaried employees would be working for free.

          At the end of the day though I go back to that few paychecks are guaranteed. While I think it sucks (putting it lightly) for those in the situation having appropriate finances in place. That said, I don’t know if there is truly a fair way to solve a mess like this as they’re simply caught in the crosshairs of the buffoons in Washington.

          • Micro says:

            Yeah, I think a lot of problems could be solved if congressmen’s paychecks were tied to appropriation bills. It’s a lot harder to shut down the government when it means your own paycheck is going to stop.

  • I don’t think they should get paid. When the private sector has layoffs or furloughs the employees don’t get paid. Financial literacy is needed as this wasn’t a total surprise.

    • John says:

      That definitely is a valid point Charles and one that gets overlooked in my opinion.

      • Kevin says:

        Id like to see the public support private sector size raises, profit sharing, and bonuses when times are good for government employees.

        What reason does someone have to WANT to be a govt employee anymore? Pay freezes, employee downsizing, retirement…a matching 5% 401K plan, health insurance…more expensive than some private companies offered policies (pay 100% dental/vision and over $500/month out of pocket for health insurance alone)
        Used as a pawn by politicians and have your job demeaned and used as a political football? The ONLY thing that could possibly attract talent so desperately needed into Civil service is stability, and now thats out the window too.

        How many private sector employees (that so many here keep comparing govt employees to) take an oath, can be contractually obligated to work for free etc.

        were told executives and CEO’s need bonuses (even as crashing our economy) to retain the needed talent, why wouldnt we want to retain talent in our civil servants?

  • I don’t think they should be paid but I hate to see them live a miserable life that’s why the government must include basic and advanced financial lessons in school, so that young people of today could manage their finances better and avoid living paycheck to paycheck.

  • There’s some gov’t employees that are still working even though they’re furloughed. They should absolutely get back pay. And maybe even medals. I think the people that got furloughed should get paid. And I understand the flawed logic in that opinion. Maybe I’m completely erroneous, but I feel like the ones who forced the government to shut down should be forgoing their pay. (I know some of them have per our Twitter convo.) This whole thing has been asinine, and, frankly, a bit dangerous.

    • John says:

      I’ve read that and agree, they should get every last cent owed to them and likely more.

      I totally agree, I think if they can’t agree to work together and have some level of compromise then why on earth should they get paid? It’s like rewarding a toddler for throwing a tantrum.

  • Furloughed employees should not be paid. If you don’t work, you shouldn’t get paid.

    Our government is incompetent. You take your chances when you work for incompetent people. Anyone who chooses to work a government job knows the risks they take by accepting the position. In return they get to not only say things like “good enough for government work,” they actually get to do work at that level and get away with it.

    Any smart person who was furloughed would take this opportunity to find a better job. Eventually, the government will cross the event horizon and become a black hole of ineptitude where nothing good can escape. Then we can finally throw all of them out and start over.

    Did you see the recent survey that over 60% of Americans think every member of Congress should be fired?

    It’s about time America woke up to the incompetence of their elected officials.

  • It’s tough – the fiscally responsible part of me says no, they shouldn’t be paid because they’re not working. However, the rationale side of me says it also wasn’t their fault they got furloughed, and once a full year’s budget is passed, they should get back pay to the start of the fiscal year.

    • John says:

      I would definitely agree Robert, it is a tough call. That said, the fact of what happens with those furloughed in the private sector is a tough one for me to get around.

  • The people who got the most screwed out of all of this are the stores and restaurants that depend on the traffic of government employees to keep them going at full speed. I feel the sorriest for them since they’ll never get any back pay.

    That’s why any type of government shut down is terrible and it gets me upset when people say things like “the country needs to shut down to save money”. They don’t get the big picture that there are tons of shoe-shiners, coffee shops, restaurants, bars, convenience stores, etc that are so dependent on the money from government workers who then in turn spend their money in other businesses. It’s trickle down economics…

    • John says:

      That’s an excellent point Tara, I totally overlooked that. I would definitely agree that those running businesses dependent on traffic from government employees definitely do take a significant hit that they really won’t be able to make up. It reminds me of an article I read the other day which argued that retailers fear that D.C. is going to kill business for Christmas. It’s those things that don’t get thought of which have a big impact.

  • Ben says:

    I am a retired government employee who went through the last furlough. The minute they passed legislation to pay the furloughed employees back pay they should have been sent back to work. I is one thing to be furloughed with no expectation that you will be compensated at a later date. However, once there was a decision that they would get back pay, to not require them to immediately return to work, is nothing more then giving them a paid vacation. I have been there, government employees should understand they could be subject to the same problems that effect other business, i.e. poor management.

  • I agree – this is definitely a controversial topic. However, I think that if I was a govt employee and was being forced not to work in an unplanned way, I would want to be paid, as I might be depending on the income to pay the mortgage, support the family, etc.

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