Questions about federal government shutdown answered

The federal government has been partially shut down for almost a month now — the longest stretch in US history.

As the shutdown drags on, more federal employees are being called back to work — without pay, at least for the foreseeable future — to keep key things running smoothly. Even so, plenty of operations are affected, and keeping track can be tough.

Here are more answers to commonly asked questions about what’s beginning to feel like a never-ending shutdown.

When will the government reopen?


Your guess is as good as ours.

President Donald Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are locked in a duel over Trump’s demand that Congress allocate $5.7 billion to build a wall at the US-Mexico border.

Saturday, the President proposed extending protections for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients and individuals with Temporary Protected Status in exchange for wall funding.

Trump’s latest proposal is unlikely to change anything. Pelosi and other Democrats rejected the offer, maintaining the President must open the government before negotiations begin.

Are there foods I should avoid?

The US Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday resumed some food safety inspections that had been halted since the shutdown began.

But even with inspectors back at work — without pay — some experts still have safety concerns and recommend avoiding certain foods.

Is it safe to travel?

Yes. Staffing issues, such as unscheduled absences by Transportation Security Administration employees, could become a safety concern, though experts say that’s a long way off. The Federal Aviation Administration announced Tuesday it would recall thousands of furloughed workers, adding to the air traffic controllers and other FAA employees who have been working without pay all along.

Some airports have experienced longer wait times at security checkpoints, while others have cut back operations. But TSA maintains that most operations are running as normal.

Meantime, investigations into significant plane, rail and vehicle incidents are on hold as National Transportation Safety Board workers also are furloughed.

Is the military affected?

Most of the military isn’t affected because a bill funding the Defense Department passed in September.

However, the US Coast Guard falls under the Department of Homeland Security, and thousands of active duty service members who had been working through the shutdown went without a paycheck on Tuesday. It was the first time members of the Armed Forces weren’t paid during a shutdown, the Coast Guard’s top official said.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is fully funded for the 2019 fiscal year, and all operations will continue as normal during the shutdown.

Are US diplomatic outposts safe?

Yes. The State Department ordered employees to return to work this week, saying it needs US embassies, consulates and domestic offices fully staffed to ensure national security. The department said it would find money to pay workers for a time despite the shutdown.

Staffers had been furloughed because officials thought the shutdown would end sooner, they said. And though operations will now continue, bureaus and posts are expected to stick to a tight budget for spending on contracts, travel and other needs.

What about weather forecasting?

The longer the shutdown continues, the more vulnerable the country is to the next hurricane season and other extreme weather.

Hurricane season doesn’t start until June, but forecasters and researchers use the off-season to refine and improve storm-predicting models, methods and techniques. Now, much of that research is in jeopardy.

Will I get my mail?

Yes. The Postal Service doesn’t use federal appropriations for operations, relying instead on sales of postage, products and services.

Will I get my tax refund?

Yes, but it comes at a cost to Internal Revenue Service employees. The IRS ordered tens of thousands of employees this week to return to work without pay as tax-filing season gets underway. The move to process tax returns is a departure from the IRS policy of not paying refunds while the government is closed.

Will I get my food stamps?

Food stamps are funded through February. The Department of Agriculture says it’s working with states to issue February benefits earlier than usual, by January 20. Some recipients may get an unusually large payment, meant to last an extra month, which could cause confusion.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, is also funded through February. Child nutrition programs, including school breakfasts, lunches and after-school meals, are funded through March.

Is Social Security affected?

No, Social Security services aren’t affected, and benefits will continue to arrive on time.

How are Native American tribes affected?

Tribes that rely on federal funds for services, such as health clinics and food pantries, are affected.

About 1.9 million Native Americans and Alaska Natives get funding from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is operated by the Department of the Interior, one of the agencies hit by the shutdown.

For one tribe of Chippewa in Michigan, the cost reportedly amounts to $100,000 each day the government is shut down.

Can I still visit the national parks?

Some are closed completely. Others are still open but with little to no staff.

Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park in Atlanta will reopen on Saturday ahead of the federal holiday with financial help from Delta Air Lines. It will stay open for 16 days, meaning travelers attending the Super Bowl on February 3 will get a chance to visit the sites, too, the park service said.

At other parks, local volunteers are pitching in until the government reopens.

What about the Smithsonian museums?

All Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo are now closed.

What happens to court cases?

Federal courts so far have dug deep to find funds to keep things running and workers paid, but court offices are set to run out of money on Friday. After that, essential staff would work without pay.

More than 40,000 immigration hearings have been canceled due to the shutdown, one report estimates. Immigration courts that handle cases of people who aren’t in detention will be reset for after the government reopens. Cases of people in detention are proceeding as scheduled.

Can I get married in Washington?

Yes. Because of the unique way the capital city is governed, some municipal functions, including granting marriage licenses, are affected by the shutdown.

But Washington’s mayor signed the LOVE Act, temporarily allowing a city officer to issue marriage licenses during the shutdown so couples can get the tax and home ownership advantages they’re due.

Are the President and members of Congress getting paid?

Yes. The salaries of the President and members of Congress are written into the Constitution and aren’t funded through annual appropriations.

Since taking office, Trump has donated his salary, which is paid quarterly, to various federal departments. And some members of Congress are donating their paychecks to charity.

Are federal workers getting a helping hand?

Federal employees who are working — or not working — without pay could probably use a beer. Now, anyone can buy the next round of drinks for those affected.

Workers are also getting help from their friends across the border: Canadian air traffic controllers have been ordering pizzas for their US counterparts.

Food banks have also stepped up to provide meals and produce to government workers.

Will federal workers get back pay?

About 800,000 federal employees are required to go to work or stay home without pay. Both chambers of Congress passed legislation to guarantee back pay for furloughed federal workers, and Trump signed it this week.

Contracted workers may not be as lucky, though. Whether they get paid is up to their employer.

Some Democratic senators have introduced legislation to ensure low-wage federal contractors get back pay. A similar House bill stalled in 2017.

Do furloughed employees have to go back to work if the government requests it?

Yes. Employees who are called back to work must show up. Most, including those at the IRS and the FAA, will work without pay. The State Department pledged it would find a way to pay recalled workers for one pay period, though they won’t be paid for the time they were furloughed until after the government reopens.

So, why don’t employees simply refuse to work without pay? Well, it’s illegal for federal workers to strike. If they did, they could be fired once the government reopens.

Can federal employees take paid vacation days?

Any scheduled paid time off gets canceled during the shutdown, per Office of Management and Budget guidelines. Employees may be able to carry over previously scheduled vacation time from last year once the government reopens.

What about federal workers’ benefits?

Health insurance coverage will continue, and premiums will accumulate during the shutdown, to be withheld from paychecks after the government reopens. Life insurance coverage continues for up to a year without cost to the employee or agency.

But flexible spending account claims won’t be reimbursed until the shutdown ends. And premiums for long-term care and for dental and vision insurance will accumulate, then employees will be billed directly.

Workers also can’t contribute to Thrift Saving Plans, their federal retirement savings accounts. They can borrow money from those accounts — but only if the shutdown is expected to last fewer than 30 days. Employees can withdraw from the accounts if they are 59½ years old or face a “financial hardship.”

Can furloughed employees get another job or solicit donations?

Workers who seek another job still must abide by the executive branch’s ethical conduct standards and rules, as well as any relevant agency rules. Those rules could limit the type of work they can take on, as well as the money they can earn. And there’s always the possibility employees could be summoned back to their government jobs on short notice.

Meantime, some furloughed employees have set up GoFundMe pages, seeking donations to help them survive the shutdown, though that may be against the law.

Federal workers may have a hard time, however, getting answers to their ethics questions: Only three of the ethics office’s 68 employees are working during the shutdown.

Can federal workers apply for unemployment insurance?

It depends. If they’re required to work without pay, then no. Furloughed workers could qualify, and requirements vary by state. Most states issue payments within 21 days of filing a claim, according to guidelines from the Office of Personnel Management.

Also, most states — and Washington — require federal workers to pay back unemployment benefits if they end up getting back pay.

Are federal workers getting financial help?

Some banks and credit unions are providing financial assistance for federal workers, including low- or no-interest payroll advances and loans.

The offerings are for short-term emergencies, though, and may not be as helpful to employees as the shutdown rolls on.

Can federal workers quit or retire?

Some federal employees who are fed up with the uncertainty may decide to quit and take their talents to the private sector, a tough decision, given the hoops many of them had to jump through to land a federal job.

Most employees planning to retire had already submitted relevant paperwork months in advance. They get to retire, effective on the submitted date, regardless of the shutdown.

Those who hadn’t applied for retirement likely must now wait until the government reopens to do so. And they could face processing delays due to the shutdown.