As the first week of the government shut down comes to a close, many Defense Department employees are still wondering whether and when their paychecks will come.
This confusion comes after an eleventh hour bill was passed to keep military personnel paid during the shut down. President Barack Obama passed the Pay Our Military Act on Sept. 30 to provide for pay for currently serving military members and essential civilian employees in the Department of Defense. But who exactly qualifies as an essential employee was never spelled out and is still being decided by the DOD while workers are left wondering.
Currently, around 400,000 of 800,000 of DOD’s civilian workers are furloughed, and four days into the shut down, the Pentagon has yet to tell civilian employees whether they will be regularly compensated under the new legislation.
Employees whose paychecks are currently in limbo include teachers at Department of Defense Education Activity schools, DOD emergency workers, and others directly supporting military operations. These civilian workers were all told to return to work on Tuesday morning by DOD officials.
Despite DODEA teachers being exempted from furlough, service academies have still felt the impact of the government shutdown, with the Naval Academy reporting 20 percent of classes canceled and West Point reporting 30 percent cancellation due to lack of civilian staff.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has been working with the loose language of the bill in order to expand its reach. The bill states that pay will be provided for civilian personnel within the Defense Department “whom the Secretary concerned determines are providing support to members of the Armed Forces.”
Hagel has been consulting with legislators and lawyers throughout the week to find a legal interpretation of the bill that would provide pay to some furloughed civilian workers, arguing that any civilian employee in the defense department is key to maintaining military operations.
“Common sense tells you that if you’re working for the Department of Defense, you’re supporting the defense and the security of America,” Hagel said as part of a question and answer session before U.S. sailors in Yasuoka, Japan earlier this week. “You’re supporting those who are on the front lines, those in uniform, like you, who do this nation’s business,” he said.
Hagel also has the support of many congressmen. Two representatives, Californian Republican Buck McKeon and Ohio Republican Michael R. Turner sent letters to Hagel urging him to take advantage of the bill’s ambiguous wording.
“I believe the legislation provides you with broad latitude and I encourage you to use it,” McKeon wrote to Hagel in his letter. “I strongly encourage you to use the power of Congress to keep national security running,” he wrote.
Some Pentagon civilian employees have already experienced a furlough earlier this year as part of across-the-board sequestration at the DOD. The furloughs, which resulted in 37 million in spending cuts, only lasted for six days.
Hagel said that he would make the expansion of the bill a priority, but did not specify how many civilian employees would be saved from furlough and receiving their regular pay.
As of Friday afternoon, a spokesperson at the Pentagon confirmed that there have been no further details released about the specifications of the Pay Our Military bill. According to a spokesperson from the DOD’s Finance and Accounting Department, as long as employees are notified by Monday, Oct. 7, paychecks should be issued by the mid-month payday on Oct. 15.