The U.S. Senate voted late Thursday to grant back pay for furloughed federal workers, which is usually what happens when the government shuts down. It's a benevolent and fair thing to do – 800,000 employees forced off the job or having to work without pay because of a political fray shouldn't go without income through no fault of their own.
It's sad that granting back pay for lost hours is so routine for federal workers that it has become a custom. But that tradition should frost taxpayers who foot the bill for tens of millions of work hours in which no work was done.
President Donald Trump reportedly has promised legislators he'd sign the measure, though it has yet to come to a vote in the House. So if it does come to pass as expected, at least federal workers victim to the shutdown won't suffer so much financially.
But the uncertainty and the financial stress is taking a toll, particularly in agencies where morale is already low. The union for the Transportation Security Agency says some of its members – who are considered essential personnel and must stay on the job through the shutdown – have or are planning to quit rather than be forced to work without pay. Ditto for the air traffic controllers. And two other unions representing a wide range of federal workers, including Customs and Border Protection officers, have filed lawsuits against the government over the practice.
That shouldn't surprise. This is the third shutdown in a year for federal workers (albeit one of them lasted only a few hours) and it's understandable that the stress from such uncertainty and employer dysfunction would have folks looking for the exit.
In an economy in which four out of five workers live paycheck to paycheck, granting back pay is the right thing to do for furloughed workers. But it's not just federal employees who are caught in the political crossfire; in what has become another tradition, federal contractors lose business during the shutdown and don't get paid.
So not only does the country not get the work for which it will be paying furloughed employees, private-sector contractors that the government has increasingly come to rely on take the shutdown in the wallet, with some small operators saying they are being forced to lay off workers and fear for the future of their businesses.
Meanwhile, most congressional Republicans – who can usually be counted on to look out for the health of American businesses – continue to stand with Trump over his demand for a wasteful and ineffective border wall that most Americans don't want, while the government services they do want (and pay for) are circumscribed.
No wonder Americans are so cynical about Washington.
– Scott Martelle is a opinion columnist for the Los Angeles Times.