About 800,000 of the 2.1 million federal workers nationwide will go without pay over Christmas if the government shuts down tonight. Thousands more federal contractors would also lose pay — and unlike full-time employees who work alongside them in the same offices, they won’t be eligible for back pay. Their plight, however, does not move everyone. Presented with the notion that a shutdown would create hardship for public employees, Representative Scott Perry, a Republican from Pennsylvania, resorted to ridicule. “Who’s living that they’re not going to make it to the next paycheck?” he told Politico’s Sarah Ferris on Thursday night. “Why are government employees so sacrosanct? Private sector employees deal with this all the time … The government’s not immune to these things.”
The word things is so broad that it hides a universe of facts. Maybe Perry merely meant that the world can be an unjust place, whether you work for the local supermarket, Microsoft, or the State Department. But hundreds of thousands of federal workers are about to experience a pay gap or loss, all because a Republican president wants billions of dollars for metal slats to keep out asylum seekers and migrants. Apart from the policy consequences, shutdowns are often portrayed as victimless, aside from the embarrassment suffered by lawmakers. The reality is that most federal employees aren’t overpaid bureaucrats with luxury condos in Dupont Circle. Government work is usually just work, and it often doesn’t pay nearly as well as private-sector employment.
Most federal workers make between $33,000 and $55,000, according to their union, the American Federation of Government Employees. In April, the Federal Salary Council noted that there’s a significant pay gap between federal employees and private-sector employees who perform similar work. Federal workers make just under 32 percent less on average, the Post reported at the time, with the gap more pronounced in at least two expensive housing markets, San Francisco and Washington-Baltimore. The Post also cited a previous report from the Congressional Budget Office, which “concluded that federal employees overall earn 3 percent more on average but that there are large differences by educational level: from a 34 percent advantage for federal workers with a high-school education or less to a 24 percent shortfall for those with a professional degree or doctorate.” Pay varies drastically, in other words, and it’s easy to see how a public employee would indeed live paycheck to paycheck, especially in a city like San Francisco, where the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment is now $3,337.
Federal contractors, meanwhile, experience their own challenges. Taxpayer money is lucrative for CEOs, but less so for the rank-and-file employees at companies that receive federal contracts. “More than two-thirds of the top 50 publicly held federal contractors and federal corporate subsidy recipients paid their CEOs more than 100 times the median pay of their workers in 2017,” USA Today reported in August, citing a new study by the Institute for Policy Studies. Meanwhile, last year the Center for Public Integrity found that the federal government had paid at least $18 billion to contractors who committed wage violations — repeatedly, in some cases. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division found that in 2016, “nearly 32,000 federal contract workers were owed slightly more than $50 million in back pay due to wage-law violations,” CPI reported. Many are low-wage workers who said they’d been unable to afford basic necessities like asthma medication.
Any government shutdown is also likely to disproportionately affect African-Americans and veterans, who are both overrepresented in the federal workforce. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management announced in 2017 that 31.1 percent of federal employees are veterans; in 2014, 18.1 percent of federal employees were African-American. As Dave Jamieson noted for HuffPost at the time, government work has also traditionally helped pull black families into the middle-class. A shutdown won’t reverse that trend, but it does clarify who will be most harmed by Trump’s presidential tantrum.
The specter of the overpaid bureaucrat still appears regularly in arguments for small government or more directly in bids to cut federal pay; Trump himself supported a pay freeze for federal workers in 2019, though he was overruled by his own party. Public workers aren’t sacrosanct, but they’re far more vulnerable than Republicans like Perry care to admit.