While it is hard to see through all the tax bill drama, our federal government is, once again, facing a potential government shutdown on Friday. While we all hope and expect that this disaster will be averted, it is important to understand what can happen when the government shuts down. It’s happened before, as recently as 2013, and there’s no reason to think it won’t happen again. And it can have a direct impact on military families.
Please note: very little is written in law. Much of this information comes from understanding what has happened in previous shutdowns and interpretations of the laws that impact the issue, but not from actual existing rules and laws themselves.
There are a couple of big myths that make military folks think that they shouldn’t be worried about their pay during a government shutdown. Please understand that military pay absolutely can be impacted during a government shutdown.
Myth 1: My contract guarantees that I’ll be paid.
Nope. In one of the rare pieces of information that is know, the Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) states, "In case of a potential government shutdown, the Department of Defense has no legal authority to pay any personnel - military or civilian - for the days during which the government is shut down."
In most past shutdowns, the shutdown was short, and occurred between pay periods, so pay wasn’t impacted. But just because that is how it has happened in the past doesn't mean that is how it will happen in the future.
Myth 2: They passed a bill guaranteeing military pay.
Yes, they did, for the shutdown that occurred in 2013. That bill only applied to that fiscal year, and does not apply to any future shutdowns.
There is always the possibility that a similar bill would be passed for any future shutdowns, but I wouldn’t count on it.
There’s another issue having to do with military pay. As you can imagine, making payments to over a million people doesn’t happen quickly. The process of making military payments starts long before the actual payday. In fact, the process has already started. If the government shuts down on 8 December 2017, then those processes (will probably) stop until the shutdown ends. If a shutdown were to end just before the actual payday, pay deposits could be delayed.
A lot of people say, "Well, if I'm not going to get paid, I don't have to work." As much as I'd like to have an unexpected vacation, that's not how it works. Military members are expected to show up for work regardless of whether they'll get paid.
If you live in base housing, your services will probably not be impacted. In theory, if a shutdown lasted until 1 January 2018, and DFAS was unable to pay allotments to the privatized housing companies, they could start the process of evicting people. That’s not likely to happen.
The Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) does not have a prescribed process for operations during a government shutdown. However, we do know what they did during the shutdown in 2013:
In 2013, commissaries located in the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii, remained open for one day to sell their produce, dairy, meat, and other perishable products. They were supposed to remain closed for the rest of the shutdown, but began reopening on about a week into the shutdown because of an interpretation that the Pay Our Military Act also applied to civilians.
In 2013, commissaries located overseas remained open.
There is no guarantee that this shutdown would operate the same way. DeCA has not yet made any announcements about their plans for this shutdown. However, given the nature of shutdown instructions, it is reasonable to assume they would have a similar process this time. However, as mentioned before, we can’t count on another military pay bill to ensure military pay and access to other services funding by the DoD.
In both of the last two shutdowns, schools operated by the Department of Defense Educational Activity (DoDEA) were deemed essential and remained open.
This one is a little tricky to understand, but leave could be affected during a shutdown. Basically, taking leave is kind of like spending money in the bank - you’re drawing upon previous savings. The government isn’t authorized to do this during a shutdown.
There is a bill in Congress called the Federal Employee Fair Treatment Act of 2017. It would make sure that federal workers are fully compensated, whether furloughed or forced to work without pay during a shutdown. This bill also specifies that scheduled annual leave and sick leave may be taken as normal during a shutdown. At this time, it is unclear whether the provisions of this bill would apply to military service members, who are not exempt from working during a shutdown.
Of course, we all hope that Congress takes action to avert a government shutdown. Even so, we all need to be informed about what can happen if the government shuts down. Knowledge is power.