How a Government Shutdown Impacts Military Pay, Benefits

Collage of money

When the nation slips into a government shutdown, military members are sometimes among those to feel the pinch.

How does a shutdown impact military and retiree pay and benefits or payments from the Department of Veterans Affairs?

Although each shutdown situation is slightly different, guidance issued by the Defense Department and VA tends to be similar during each instance in which the Defense Department is impacted.

While a government shutdown last started in late 2018, one was narrowly avoided in 2021. The following is based on guidance issued in 2021 and in 2018.

Military Pay

Although active-duty troops and Guard and Reservists on active-duty orders are expected to show up for work during a shutdown, they do not get paid unless Congress passes a separate piece of legislation to do so.

Guard and Reserve drill days scheduled for during the 2018 shutdown were to be canceled, while those on drill when the shutdown started were likely to be sent home. Guardsmen and Reservists were instructed to check with their units for more information in both 2018 and ahead of the looming 2021 closure.

DoD Civilian Employees

Most Department of Defense (DoD) civilian employees, including dual status technicians who are in Reserve forces as a condition of their DoD employment, were to be furloughed according to guidance issued in 2021. Only employees performing exempted activities such as military logistics or surveillance were to avoid furlough, according to the guidance.   

Retiree Pay and SBP Payments

Military retirees were to still receive their regular pension checks in the event of a shutdown in January 2019, as were those receiving a Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) payment.

That's because those funds were paid from a different account that was not impacted by the annual funding bill Congress had yet to pass.

Troops Killed in Action

During the January 2019 shutdown, newly bereaved family members were not to receive the Pentagon's $100,000 death gratuity during a shutdown or military-funded travel to Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, or elsewhere for the dignified transfer or military funeral or memorial.

Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance (SGLI) payments, however, were not to be affected.

VA Disability Pay & GI BIll Benefits

Like retiree pay, VA disability pay and GI Bill payments were both funded through different legislation than was at risk on the Hill during the January 2019 shutdown. For that reason, those checks were not to be affected.

However, during the 2013 shutdown, VA officials warned that if the closure extended beyond several weeks, disability checks were unlikely to go out to more than 5.1 million veterans.

Military Moves and Travel

Military families about to make a permanent change of station (PCS) move or troops preparing for temporary travel (TDY) had their travel on hold until after the January 2019 shutdown. In 2021, families and troops were warned that PCS moves would be delayed. 

Those who already had departed on military move orders were to complete their move, according to 2018 and 2021 guidance. Those in the midst of TDY travel were to return to their duty station, the guidance said.

Medical Care on Base

While military hospitals and on-base dental clinics were scheduled to stay open for emergencies, inpatient care and acute care, all other types of care -- including elective procedures and primary-care appointments -- were to be canceled until the shutdown was lifted in both early 2019 and 2021.

Families were instructed to contact their clinic or hospital to find out more about their scheduled care.

Medical Care off Base

The shutdown did not impact off-base medical care provided through Tricare, the guidance noted.

On-Base Child Care

On-base military child care centers were to stay open in 2018 on a case-by-case basis, depending on whether they are seen as "essential." Users were asked to contact their specific Child Development Center (CDC) for details.

On-Base Schools

Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) schools were to stay open during the 2018 shutdown. However, all extracurricular activities, such as sporting events, were to be canceled, the guidance said.

On-base schools that are operated by local school districts were not affected by a shutdown.

Commissaries, Exchanges and MWR

In January 2019, military exchanges were to remain open during a shutdown, thanks to the way they are funded.

Stateside commissaries, however, were to close by three days after the shutdown started, officials said, while those outside the U.S. and in some rural locations were to remain open since they are considered "essential." Those included two stores in Guam, a store in Puerto Rico and commissaries at Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center Bridgeport and Fort Irwin in California; Coast Guard Station Kodiak and Fort Greely in Alaska; and Dugway Proving Ground, Utah.

Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) activities were to shutter temporarily on a case-by-case basis due to how those services are funded.

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