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Shutdown Could Extend Into the New Year, Won't Save Taxpayers Money


The partial government shutdown is expected to affect some 800,000 federal workers around the country. Nonessential employees have been told not to show up for work, and those that are required to be on the job might not be paid until later. As NPR's Jim Zarroli reports, that does not mean the government will be saving any money.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Whole government agencies are now in lockdown. That might sound like it should save taxpayers money. In fact, shutdowns almost always end up costing more than they save, says Randy Erwin of the National Federation of Federal Employees.

RANDY ERWIN: It's tremendously, tremendously wasteful. And it's just flushing the taxpayers' money down the toilet.

ZARROLI: Many employees will continue to work through the furlough. They just won't be getting paychecks until after it ends. They're people such as Justin Tarvosky (ph), a corrections officer at a federal prison in West Virginia.

JUSTIN TARVOSKY: As most people know, it's not a easy environment to work in. And then you're being told that, you know, you don't know if you're going to get paid this week, next week, the week after.

ZARROLI: A lot of other federal employees have been told to stay home. They won't be working at all. And they're not supposed to be compensated for the time they're idle, but Congress has usually appropriated money to pay them anyway after the shutdown ends. Gordon Gray is director of fiscal policy at the think tank American Action Forum.

GORDON GRAY: To the extent that federal employees are furloughed and aren't doing any work over the period of the shutdown, we later pay them for not working.

ZARROLI: Gray says shutdowns cost money in other ways. Federal workers have to spend time planning how they're going to close up shop, and that takes a lot of time.

GRAY: So that basically diverts their attention away from whatever their mission is into a utterly unproductive enterprise.

ZARROLI: During the shutdown, the government forfeits a small amount of revenue it won't get back - fees at national parks, for instance. And Gray says federal agencies that aren't paying their bills during the shutdown often have to pay late fees and penalties later on. Gray says none of this is going to add much to the federal debt.

GRAY: But it is unquestionably and undeniably in the wrong direction. We're losing money, and we're getting nothing out of it.

ZARROLI: And meanwhile there's an impact that's harder to calculate on employee morale. Daniel Umberger (ph) is an air traffic controller in Texas. He says he and his colleagues have been told there's no vacation pay right now, so if they want to take time off for the holidays, there's no guarantee they'll get paid.

DANIEL UMBERGER: It shouldn't happen. I understand the process as to why they're doing it. It's a political game. But it does have effects on, you know, thousands of people.

ZARROLI: Unfortunately, he says, shutdowns have been happening pretty regularly, and a lot of federal workers have had to learn how to deal with them. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.