In the news, the reporters have been talking about "essential" (real quotes, not scare quotes) government employees being required to work without pay by these two statements (paraphrased).

All employees will have to forgo pay during the shutdown.

Essential employees will be working during the shutdown while non-essential employees will be sent home.

One example of such claims: https://www.kcra.com/article/what-a-partial-government-shutdown-could-mean-for-you/25648684

I remember the Thirteenth Amendment banning "slavery and involuntary servitude" and this is in fact so powerful that the federal government cannot force private practitioners to take Medicare at all.

I again remember the ability to draft for reasons of national security, but I know of no case where that drafting was not with full pay according to the normal government pay scales.

But even if the government is really out of money (which it isn't; during a shutdown it should be running a tax surplus*), I can't imagine how this leads to requiring people to work without pay. My normal assumption would be you print unbacked money if you have to (and deal with the inflation later) to pay the troops.

But they say the employees will be required to work without pay. How?

*They say the shutdowns cost the government money. The net loss is due to the almost universal practice of paying all the government workers after the fact.

  • 1
    It would be helpful if you would provide citations for those reporters who are saying that "government employees being required to work without pay". If that is an accurate quote, it is probably a good example is bad reporting (or lazy reporting).
    – BobE
    Dec 24, 2018 at 1:46
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    @BobE I've heard similar things in past shutdowns, and was confused at first just like OP was.
    – cpast
    Dec 24, 2018 at 2:02
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    Note that funding has lapsed for only about 1/4 of the US federal government, so most government employees (including I believe all defense/military staff) will continue to work and be paid as usual. Dec 24, 2018 at 8:48
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    Of course the military will continue to be paid.
    – Ian Kemp
    Dec 24, 2018 at 13:41
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    You have a few misconceptions in your question. First, the government isn't running a tax surplus because the government will still have to eventually pay for stuff it would have if it hadn't shut down. Second, the shutdown isn't from running out of money. It's from money not being authorized for the next fiscal period.
    – RWW
    Dec 26, 2018 at 16:07

2 Answers 2


First, slavery has literally nothing at all to do with whether or not someone is paid, nor with how much they're paid. Slavery and involuntary servitude are forced labor, not unpaid labor. If you are paying someone millions of dollars but threaten to kill them if they quit, that's involuntary servitude. If you pay them nothing but they're free to walk away, that's quite possibly legal (volunteering is often legal), often non-criminal, and if it is criminal might be just a misdemeanor.

Second, people who are required to work to a shutdown are in a pay status. They can't actually get paychecks until the government reopens, but they're legally entitled to their full pay for every hour worked. This is also why furloughed people aren't allowed to work: because federal employees are entitled to pay for hours worked, any work they do results in the government owing them money that hasn't been appropriated. Federal agencies can mostly only do that for essential tasks, so anyone not doing an essential task can't be allowed to work.

Lastly, people are only "required to work" in a shutdown in the same way civilian federal employees are always required to work: refusing means you can be fired, but you're certainly free to quit. Refusing also means you pretty much won't be paid back wages when the government reopens (if you refuse an order to work you're placed in AWOL status instead of furlough status, and back pay isn't given to people in AWOL status).

(I should note that this only applies to the pay for the hours you weren’t working; as mentioned above, employees are legally entitled to pay for hours worked. However, if you go AWOL after a week and the shutdown lasts for three, employees who spend all three weeks working are entitled to receive full back pay. Employees who worked for one week and were furloughed for two are entitled to one week’s pay, but will almost certainly get three [as Congress will almost certainly give back pay to furloughed employees]. Employees who worked for one week and were AWOL for two are entitled to one week’s pay, but will receive nothing for the two weeks they went AWOL and will possibly be fired.)

Military personnel are truly required to work (refusal can result in criminal punishment), but the 13th Amendment doesn't mean the military can't punish desertion or refusal to obey orders.

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    Ugh. Something else I can put down to bad reporting.
    – Joshua
    Dec 24, 2018 at 0:39
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    "If you pay them nothing but they're free to walk away..." this example is facetious because the government employees did not expect to be paid nothing. In fact, I find this a poor answer because it fails to address that there has essentially been a breach of contract on the part of the government, yet it's the so-called "essential" employees who are carrying the can by effectively being coerced into continuing to work via the threat of non-pay and/or dismissal.
    – Ian Kemp
    Dec 24, 2018 at 13:55
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    @IanKemp Being "coerced into continuing to work via the threat of non-pay and/or dismissal" is called a job. That's how all jobs work. If the government is fully funded, employees are still required to work or else they won't be paid and will be fired. Also, breach of contract is not generally a crime and certainly isn't involuntary servitude, and as I addressed in my answer, employees who work during the shutdown are still in a pay status (paychecks are just delayed).
    – cpast
    Dec 24, 2018 at 18:54
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    @IanKemp, the volunteering example is not presented as representative of any government employees. It is presented as a counterexample to the OP's false premise that work without pay is a characterization of slavery. Moreover, to the extent that there is a breach of contract, it does not occur until the government actually fails to pay salary or wages as required by whatever explicit or implied contract exists, which might, in fact, not place strict requirements on exactly when such pay is remitted. Every government worker called upon to work during a shutdown will, eventually, be paid. Dec 24, 2018 at 18:57
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    @JohnBollinger "Every government worker called upon to work during a shutdown will, eventually, be paid." Are you sure that's guaranteed? It is my understanding that during every previous shutdown every employee has gotten back pay, but that that was a decision that had been made and allowed after the fact, and that it was not fait accompli.
    – Beska
    Dec 24, 2018 at 19:23

As a federal worker you have facts missed. You assume too much. When the federal government labels an employee 'essential', there are rules that should have been followed to get there. One of these is non-excepted activities, you need to determine how many employees you need to get your non-excepted activities accomplished; this is only one of the criteria. Since in the past there haven't been many shutdowns of extended length, various Agencies simply called an entire classification 'essential' giving little concern to any of the criteria. This was expedient and fast. Roll ahead to now, more furloughs of greater length and no one wants to put up with being ping pong balls. Federal employees want people paid and that decision is left to government. The back pay bill is already signed so all employees, essential and non-essential, will get back pay for all furloughed hours. But many employees have only ever been called 'essential' with no consideration of what activities that they are doing and may be entitled to be on furlough.

  • 1) You assume badly. 2) When I wrote the question there was no back pay bill signed. 3) Wait months to get paid is about as bad as not get paid.
    – Joshua
    Jan 15, 2019 at 22:13

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