Federal Workers Are About to Miss Their First Paycheck

As stories about the shutdown's effects on the federal workforce stream in, it's worth considering just who these federal workers are, and how vulnerable many are to a missed paycheck.
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A sign is displayed on a government building in Washington, D.C., that's closed because of the government shutdown, on December 22nd, 2018.

A sign is displayed on a government building in Washington, D.C., that's closed because of the government shutdown, on December 22nd, 2018.

As the partial shutdown of the federal government drags on, an important milestone for federal workers looms large: This week, approximately 800,000 federal workers will miss their first paycheck. According to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a bipartisan D.C.-based think tank, about 380,000 of those workers are currently furloughed (i.e. not working)—but about 420,000 workers are considered "essential" and are legally required to report to work without being paid.

If past government shutdowns are any indication, federal employees will ultimately receive backpay. But that knowledge is of little use to federal employees who must pay for housing, food, and childcare in the immediate term. As stories about the shutdown's effects on the federal workforce stream in, it's worth pausing to consider just who these federal workers are, and how vulnerable many are to a missed paycheck.

While it's difficult to determine the precise demographics of the affected workers, there is data available on who works at some of the government agencies most affected. For example, the Department of Homeland Security—which includes the Transportation Security Administration, Customs and Border Protection, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, the Secret Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Coast Guard—is the agency most affected by the shutdown, with over 200,000 affected workers, according to an analysis from the Washington Post.

According to the most recent data available from the DHS, almost 46 percent of DHS employees are non-white—22 percent are Hispanic and 16 percent are African American. Salaries at the DHS vary quite a bit. The average salary for TSA inspectors, for example, is only about $40,000 a year, while more experienced agents at ICE, CBP, and the Secret Service can make quite a bit more. Pay caps for Secret Service agents, for example, were increased to $189,000 (including both salary and overtime) in 2018.

Employees at the Internal Revenue Service, another agency affected by the shutdown, also earn a range of annual salaries—from approximately $40,000 for administrative assistance and customer service reps to over $200,000 for senior-level employees. Likewise, Interior employees can earn anywhere from 40,000 to almost $200,000.

According to the Post's analysis, the average annual salary of affected employees across all agencies is about $85,600, but over 110,000 of affected employees earn less than $50,000. Many of these employees, particularly at the DHS, are considered essential and required to work without pay during the shutdown, a big burden for workers who may already be living paycheck to paycheck. Indeed, reports have already emerged of anger and anxiety among Secret Service agents, already stretched thin by the unusually high demands of the Donald Trump era; and of TSA agents calling in sick because they can't afford the transportation and childcare they need to report for work.

Last year, the Federal Reserve released its annual "Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households." The report concluded that 40 percent of U.S. adults, "if faced with an unexpected expense of $400, would either not be able to cover it or would cover it by selling something or borrowing money." And while the strengthening economy has improved the well-being of most Americans, not even middle-class Americans have the level of savings recommended by financial experts.

Some better paid federal employees may have enough of a financial cushion to survive a missed paycheck, but hundreds of thousands more—TSA agents, secretaries, janitors, customer service representatives, younger federal employees who haven't yet worked their way up the pay scale, and so forth—likely do not. For them, this week may be devastating.

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