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Congressional staffers are waiting to see whether they’ll get an “essential” designation if the government shuts down in two weeks — which would force them to remain at the Capitol without pay for high-stakes negotiations and expected questions from constituents about possible delays in federal services.
Some lawmakers plan to keep all or most of their staffers in the office if government funding runs out at the end of the month. And while a 2019 law (Public Law 116-1) guarantees back pay for all federal employees either furloughed or deemed essential, there’s growing anxiety among low-paid staffers about what their lives will look like if a shutdown drags on. Lawmakers would receive their full pay during a shutdown.
The Congressional Workers Union, a group advocating for better working conditions on the Hill, is giving its members guidance on how to ask for advance payments to help weather a possible shutdown. Some offices, like Rep. Maxwell Frost’s (D-Fla.), are paying end-of-year holiday bonuses early to give staffers a cushion.
“We’re front loading some of their Christmas bonus and encouraging them to put it aside just in case we shut down,” Frost said. “It has a real impact on people.”
The law guaranteeing furlough pay could allow for various interpretations, said Demand Progress policy adviser Taylor Swift. That’s leaving congressional employees uncertain of what will happen to them if they’re labeled non-essential and furloughed. And even for essential employees who will still come into work every day, a long shutdown could squeeze their finances before Congress gets them back pay.
“If you’re living paycheck to paycheck in one of the most expensive cities in the world, that is so stressful for folks,” Swift said.
House members from both parties said they plan to keep most or all of their employees at work if there’s a shutdown, contending that their offices will need more manpower than ever. Being categorized as essential ensures staff will be required to stick around for some of the busiest days of the legislative session.
The rules governing congressional staff during a shutdown are different from government agencies, meaning how employees are categorized will vary based on their bosses discretion. While agencies are forced to shutter non-essential operations once government funding runs out, constitutional functions are still allowed, said Harvard Law visiting professor Zachary Price.
Hill staffers keep working because they’re “assisting the constitutional functions of their bosses in a way that the funding lapse can’t prevent,” Price said.
While some Hill staffers are in the dark about what their office would look like during a shutdown, others are holding meetings and internally planning for the worst.
“We’re just making sure everyone’s got their bills paid and they’re ready to go,” Rep. Jim Baird (R-Ind.) said of his communications with staff.
House Republicans are deeply divided on how to fund the government. Leaving the Capitol after the last votes of the week, Rep. Juan Ciscomani (R-Ariz.) said, given the chamber’s inability to pass any appropriations bills last week, “we are going to have to be making some plans” on what to do if there’s a shutdown.
In the meantime, staffers are working to avert the very shutdown that could stress their own finances. The median salary for D.C.-based congressional staff assistants was less than $40,000 in 2020, according to an analysis by political watchdog group Issue One.
Congressional workers who have been vocal in asking for better working conditions say the stresses of a potential shutdown point to the need for higher beginning salaries on the Hill. The Congressional Workers Union is working to show a link between labor movements that are popular among lawmakers, like United Auto Workers’ efforts, and conditions in lawmakers’ own offices.
“Members who are supporting the labor movement publicly, especially with the UAW strikes — we would hope that they are showing support for their own staff through such a difficult time,” said Sarah Drory, vice president of communications for the Congressional Workers Union.
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