Obama signs law to pay servicemembers during shutdown
By CHRIS CARROLL AND LEO SHANE III | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 1, 2013
WASHINGTON — Ultimately, no last-minute deal materialized to avoid what Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel termed a “disruptive and stupid shutdown.” But politicians did throw a monetary lifeline to military members and the Defense Department civilians who’ll continue working to support them.
The “Pay Our Military” act signed by President Barack Obama late Monday means servicemembers will continue to receive paychecks on time despite the lack of an overall law authorizing the federal government to spend money. Allowances for housing and food will continue as well, the Pentagon said Tuesday.
Previously, Pentagon officials told military members to prepare to work for what amounted to IOUs.
An estimated 400,000 civilians in “excepted” categories, including those supporting military operations, emergency responders, medical workers and DOD school employees, have also avoided the prospect of paychecks deferred until elected officials work out a deal.
The other 50 percent of the DOD civilian workforce received furlough notices Tuesday morning, however, and the only thing that could restore their lost pay will be an act by a Congress that has done them no favors so far.
“I just hope our government comes together and does what’s right,” said Air Force civilian Monica Wellington. Then she added, “I’m trying to be diplomatic.”
As the shutdown neared, Wellington said she and her husband learned they would have a second child next spring.
“With the baby on the way, I need to stay calm,” Wellington said Tuesday morning as she exited the Pentagon for an uncertain furlough period. “I can’t get stressed.”
Defense officials are examining the new law to see if they can increase the number of exempted civilians, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Tuesday during a visit to Seoul, South Korea.
“Our lawyers are now looking through the law that the president signed … to see if there’s any margin here, or widening in the interpretation of the law of exempt versus nonexempt civilians,” he said. “But it’s a priority that we have, that we’re working on right now. It’s, in fact, the priority in our general counsel’s office.”
Those who process the pay are also exempt from furlough.
More than 100,000 employees of working capital funds — DOD components funded by payments for goods and services rather than Congressional appropriations — remain on the job. That includes the Defense Finance and Accounting Services, which learned yesterday it would continue issuing paychecks for most employees of the department.
“As far as military payroll goes, it’s pretty straightforward, and the same for civilians,” said DFAS spokesman Tom LaRock. “It’s just a matter of them putting their timecards into the system and the system making the payments.”
If the shutdown drags on, DFAS’ cash balance could be depleted as fewer payments come in from DOD customers, but LaRock said exactly when that could happen was unclear.
As the reality of the shutdown sank in, servicemembers and their families sought answers.
Overnight, comment boards on the National Military Family Association’s web site were flooded with questions about what the shutdown would mean for day care, family programs, and basic base services.
“A lot of folks just can’t find this information anywhere,” said Joyce Raezer, executive director of the group. “We’ve been looking through installation web sites and service web sites for answers, but there are still a lot of unknowns.”
Raezer said most families contacting her group didn’t understand whether the new military pay protections would also cover housing allowances and other benefits, or if the promises could be undone by a debt ceiling fight in a few weeks.
Meanwhile, the group is searching for practical advice for the hundreds of new questions pouring in every hour.
“We’re telling people if they have an appointment with (a military program),” she said, “make sure you call before you go, and hope someone answers the phone.”