Responding to a statement by Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL) that furloughed federal government workers shouldn’t get back pay once the government shutdown ends, Time magazine’s Michael Grunwald asks why Yoho is wrong:
That sentiment -- why pay workers for not working? -- is one I’ve seen a lot over the past ten days, from a wide variety of people. Liberals, conservatives, smart people, intellectually rigorous people. It’s an idea that comes swiftly and naturally to people. And, in this case, it is almost completely without merit.
One way you can tell it is almost completely without merit is the paucity of actual reasoned arguments in support of it. Grunwald, for example, doesn’t really offer any. He goes on to say “I don’t get paying workers not to work” and “The strong arguments being tweeted at me for paying govt workers during shutdown are actually arguments against shutdown. Shutdowns suck!” Actually, they’re arguments that shutdowns suck and that we should pay government workers back pay after they end. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. Anyway, that’s it: Grunwald offers no other argument against back pay. (For the record: I count Grunwald among the smart and intellectually rigorous people I’ve seen take this position. If there was a strong argument for his position, I suspect he’d have come up with it.)
But “there aren’t good arguments against it” isn’t a particularly good reason for giving furloughed workers back pay. So:
1) We can afford it more easily than they can, and we caused this
We (and that’s what government is: America, collectively) can afford to pay back pay to furloughed workers much more easily than they can afford to go without a paycheck or three. They’re trying to pay their rent, mortgages, college loans, kids medical bills, grocery bills … they need that money. And despite what you’ve heard, the federal budget deficit is falling, and fast, and it probably shouldn’t be. It’s cheap and easy of for the government to borrow money, and the economy is still struggling, which means that the government borrowing money to pay people who can then buy groceries is a good thing (see #2 below.) Besides, furloughed workers didn’t cause their lack of a paycheck, we did. More specifically, the politicians we elected did in our name. But we hired them (the politicians) and we’re responsible for what they do. I’m not any happier about that than you are.
2) Not paying a million or so people for a few weeks is bad for the economy
Furloughed workers who suddenly go without paychecks aren’t buying groceries, which is bad for their hungry kids, but it’s also bad for their local grocer. And the workers their local grocer lays off as a result. And those workers’ hungry kids. And the grocer they buy groceries from. You see where this is going, right? Grunwald, who (literally) wrote the book on the 2009 stimulus, knows this.
3) Withholding paychecks makes it harder for government to attract and keep good employees
We want our government (remember, that’s us) to have good employees, right?
Grunwald’s response to this point is “didn't govt workers know risk of politics?”
Well, the last federal government shutdown was 17 years ago, and furloughed workers were given back pay when it was over. And the public perception of government jobs as uncommonly stable is one of their primary selling points to job applicants. So, no, there’s no reason to think government workers knew a shutdown was likely and that they wouldn’t get back pay if it occured.
4) Cutting government workers’ pay makes it harder for non-wealthy people to enter public service
This is already a problem in Congress, in particular. Congressional offices rely heavily on unpaid interns and poorly-paid (relative to what they could make in the private sector and to DC’s cost-of-living) staff. This gives young job-seekers from wealthy families an advantage -- they can more easily afford to work for free, or for low salaries, than less affluent peers. And the relatively low pay offered in congressional offices encourages staffers to think about a future job in a lobbying firm, where they’ll make more money for less work. This creates unfortunate incentives that should be obvious. As a result, federal government policymaking is done by under-experienced, over-worked staffers from a narrow socioeconomic background looking to impress future corporate employers. Lowering federal employees’ pay by docking them a few paychecks exacerbates all these problems.
5) It’s the right thing to do
Opponents of back pay seem to think the unfairness of giving furloughed workers back pay is obvious and undeniable.
First of all, anyone who has ever taken vacation or a sick day knows that when those workers get back to work, they’re going to have a backlog of work to get done, so it isn’t as simple as saying “they didn’t do the work, they shouldn’t get paid.” They will do much of the work, they just aren’t allowed to do it now. (Some may get paid overtime while working through that backlog. Many won’t, or won’t get paid for as much of it as they should.)
Second, these aren’t workers who decided not to show up for a few days so they could head to Atlantic City for a few days with their college buddies. They’re people who want to work, but are being forced to not work because of a political stunt. Many of them want to come in and do their jobs anyway, even though they don’t know when they’ll get paid, but they legally cannot. Think about that: They so badly want to work for us that in order to stop them from working without pay there’s a law threatening fines and jail time to keep them from doing so. So let’s not pretend they’re slackers sitting at home demanding to be paid for not working.
A handful of politicians are behaving recklessly and inflicting a great deal of pain upon the country. That’s what’s happening. That’s a lousy reason to inflict more pain on the country, and on individual employees.
Bonus: One Reason Not To Give Workers Back Pay -- And Why It’s Wrong
The only reason I can think of not to give furloughed workers back pay is that it eases the pain of a government shutdown, which makes shutdowns more likely, which is bad because shutdowns are bad. This would be a compelling argument, except that it isn’t.
Denying back pay for federal workers is a remarkably bad way to keep politicians from shutting down the government, particularly given that the politicians responsible are Republicans who hate the federal government. The shutdown disincentives that would actually be effective have long sense been ruled out. The FAA is still running (which means air traffic continues as scheduled), our military is still operational -- the really big, really immediately painful things that would actually prevent politicians from shutting down the government have already been taken off the table. That’s a big part of why we’re ten days into this nonsense. Aspects of a government shutdown that would be immediately intolerable to politically influential people never happened.
So, to sum up: The best reason anyone seems to have for denying furloughed workers back pay is “you don’t work, you don’t get paid.” It’s entirely a symbolic argument. Except the symbolism is wrong. This isn’t a case in which slacker workers would lose pay because of their own unwillingness to work. The symbolism here is: Your jerk of a boss can just decide to screw you over for no reason whatsoever. That may, unfortunately, be true, but let’s not pretend it’s some kind of noble sentiment.
On the other hand, there are strong reasons for giving workers back pay. We can afford it; many of them can’t afford to go without it. It’s better for the economy. It avoids making government a less attractive place to work, which is important to attracting and retaining the quality employees we’d all like government to have. It avoids making it even harder for anyone who isn’t already wealthy to enter public service. It avoids creating extra incentive for current federal workers to focus on lining up a more lucrative private-sector jobs. It mitigates some of the hardship inflicted on people who did nothing to cause it.
OK. Lecture over. Here’s a lyrically-relevant video: