A federal government shutdown can have a direct impact on U.S. service members and military families.
While each shutdown is different, guidance from federal agencies like the Defense Department and Veterans Affairs tend to provide something of a road map for interpreting exactly how a shutdown might impact service members and their families.
For example, VA Secretary Denis McDonough stated on Sept. 22, 2023, that a government shutdown would not affect VA benefits such as medical care, disability compensation, pensions, education, housing assistance and burials at its cemeteries. This is due to advanced appropriations that the VA receives each year from Congress.
While this is good news for veterans, things get a bit tricky for active-duty service members and their families. Here's what you need to know:
Many service members and military families believe they'll never have to worry about their pay during a government shutdown. This is false.
During a government shutdown, missions deemed essential to national security continue, but the troops working on them can't get paid unless Congress passes emergency legislation to allow military paychecks to continue. That's what happened in 2013, when lawmakers passed a bill just before a 16-day shutdown started to ensure troops wouldn't miss a paycheck.
But as of Sept. 22, 2023, Congress had no clear path to passing a defense budget, threatening troop paychecks.
"In case of a potential government shutdown, the Department of Defense has no legal authority to pay any personnel -- military or civilian -- for the days during which the government is shut down," the Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) told Military.com.
It's important to note that most government shutdowns have been short in duration and occurred between pay periods, so paychecks went out as usual, but circumstances could be different in the future. In addition, back pay is guaranteed by the Government Employee Fair Treatment Act, which was signed into law in 2019, and no longer requires separate legislation to secure.
Legislation during past shutdowns guaranteed that military pay continued, but such bills apply only to that fiscal year. And during the 2018-19 government shutdown, paychecks were suspended for about 41,000 active-duty Coast Guard members, 6,000 reservists and 8,500 civilian employees because the Coast Guard falls under the Department of Homeland Security, not the Defense Department.
For active-duty military in general, although back pay is guaranteed, paycheck deposits could be delayed. That's because the process of making military payroll begins long before the actual payday, so a shutdown could affect this timeline.
A lot of people say, "Well, if I'm not going to get paid, I don't have to work." As much as we all love an unexpected vacation, that's not how it works when it comes to federal service if you're considered an essential employee. Most active-duty military members, and those under active-duty orders, are expected to show up for work, regardless of whether they'll get paid.
If you live in base housing, your services will almost certainly remain intact. "Housing and food services for military personnel" is explicitly listed as an exception to shutdowns under the DoD's latest shutdown guidelines, published Sept. 12, 2023.
In theory, if DFAS (which is under the DoD) became unable to pay allotments to privatized housing companies, it could start the process of evicting people, but that's extremely unlikely to happen.
Overseas commissaries, plus any that are located in remote U.S. locations "where no other sources of food are reasonably available for military personnel," will remain open during a government shutdown, the DoD's latest shutdown guidelines state.
For other commissaries, it's less clear. The Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) does not have a prescribed process for operations during a government shutdown.
During the 2013 shutdown, U.S. commissaries remained open for one day to sell perishable items like produce, dairy and meat. They were supposed to remain closed for the rest of the shutdown, but began reopening after about a week because of an interpretation that the Pay Our Military Act also applied to civilians.
There is no guarantee a future shutdown would operate the same way. Even if commissaries remained open, they may not receive new shipments or restock shelves. Your best bet is to stock up on groceries, especially if you rely on the commissary for your food.
Schools and Child Care
Schools operated by the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) are deemed essential and will remain open during the regular school year in the event of a government shutdown.
Sporting events and extracurricular activities, including sports practices, will be paused unless the activity is fully funded by other means.
If your child goes to day care at an on-base Child Development Center (CDC), you'll want to check for closures. Some centers will remain open, while others will likely close on a case-by-case basis. The best thing to do is call.
During past shutdowns, leave wasn't guaranteed for those affected by furloughs, but was permitted through separate legislation.
The Government Employee Fair Treatment Act of 2019 gave federal employees permission to use their paid leave during a shutdown, including for future shutdowns. This is true even for "excepted" workers -- meaning those required to show up for work without receiving timely paychecks.
The leave must be authorized by a superior, however.
The OMB outlines pay and leave rules here.
Rebecca Kheel, Patricia Kime and Tiffini Theisen of Military.com contributed to this report.
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