Much ink was spilled earlier this month about the plight of federal workers who were furloughed due to the budget impasse. One federal employee union even bafflingly likened its members to “indentured servants.” But now, quietly, federal workers are receiving full pay for the shutdown period, whether they worked or not. In fact, some furloughed employees will receive special overtime and holiday premiums on top of their regular paychecks, just as long as they were scheduled to work overtime or on Columbus Day.
Compensating the non-work of government employees is a poor use of public money not least because federal workers are already well compensated on average. Compared with a similarly skilled private-sector worker, the average federal employee receives higher pay and benefits, works shorter hours, and enjoys greater job security. The value of the total compensation package is reflected in the desirability of federal jobs and in the very low quit rates of the workers who land those jobs. A short period of unpaid leave, as disruptive to workers’ lives as it might be, is not likely to create a general recruit-and-retain problem for the government.
Perhaps a better way to handle the shutdown would have been to allow furloughed employees to comepnsate for lost pay by expanding overtime opportunities or reducing paid vacation. That wouldn’t be feasible for every agency, but it would mean that taxpayers get at least some labor in exchange for the “back pay” they are providing.