What Happens If There's a Government Shutdown?

by Vault Careers | February 25, 2011

  • My Vault

Democrats and Republicans have exactly one week to agree on a federal budget. If they can't (because classically, republicans want cuts, and democrats don't) the Federal Government will go into a shutdown.

If that happens, federal workers deemed unnecessary—generally, anyone not in charge of "protecting life or property" are furloughed. For example, corrections officers, food workers, or medical staff at a federal would stay on, but library staff and education workers would be sent home.

For anyone worried that a flood of laid off federal employees will crowd the unemployment lines, fear not; first of all, March 4th is a pay date, so federal workers will do just fine for two weeks, even if they spend those days at home. The shutdown from Dec. 16, 1995 to Jan. 6, 1996 broke records—but even those three weeks of furloughs now would only equate to a week of no income for federal workers.

In fact, from the late seventies to mid eighties, when shutdowns happened practically every year, the average furlough lasted between 1 and 11 days—and only sent 25% of the federal workforce home at all, with reimbursement of lost wages.

But which 25% of government services are hit, and how does this affect the general public?

Here's a few things that might change—and a few that will stay the same—if a shutdown does happen.

On the chopping block:

1. National Parks

Attention, vacationers: you might want to hold off on any non-refundable air fare to Yosemite or DC. If circa-1995 history repeats itself, 360+ national parks will be closed to the public. More bad news for tourists: national monuments and buildings will be closed to visitors if a shutdown occurs, including White House tours, museums, and national archives.

2. Federal Processing

Whether you're filing for bankruptcy, buying a house, or getting a new passport, you might need to change your plans—or your trip dates. Though automated services will likely accept messages or documents, don't expect to see any processing done until after budget issues are resolved. Other deadlines of concern: taxes on April 15th (delayed refunds), student loans for the Fall '11 term, and the Census's April 1st deadline for states' restricting data (from 2010).

Still good:

1. The Post Office

Any federal agencies that receive their funding from non-government sources—such as the post office—will still be in operation. But again, don't expect certain USPS services like passport processing to be up and running.

2. Federal workers in charge of "protecting life or property."

From air traffic controllers to the guy that feeds the lab animals in testing agencies, anyone in charge of making sure people or things don't die will definitely still be working. National Security will also stay manned--for example, in 1995, 69% of Defense Department employees reported for work. And although 93% of NASA workers were sent home in the last shutdown, Monday, March 7th's return of the Discovery shuttle will probably warrant more staff.

3. Social Security

Contrary to public anxiety, social security checks will still go out to social security recipients, and new applications will be accepted. Also to remain up and running: Medicare, and veterans' health care.

Bonus: Lawmakers' Salaries

These guys—plus any other "exempt" federal workers--will still get paid. Feel free to breathe a collective sigh of relief, America!

--Cathy Vandewater, Vault.com

Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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