Federal employees are suing the Trump administration over the partial government shutdown. According to the plaintiffs, federal workers considered “essential” are currently forced to work without compensation, which constitutes a violation of their labour rights.
Due to President Trump’s failure to reach a compromise with Democrats on the border wall funding, a quarter of all federal employees are either out of work or working without pay. 380,000 of them are now on furlough and 420,000 others are not getting compensated. For the latter, if the government remains closed, they will not receive their next paycheck.
Among them are those working dangerous jobs, including Border Patrol agents, correctional officers, transportation security officers and more. Many of them are having problems paying their bills. The US Office of Personnel Management posted sample letters on Twitter for affected employees to mail to their landlords or creditors and ask for an alternative payment plan. The office suggested them to either request a lesser payment amount or work out a long-term payment plan.
On Monday, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) accused the government of violating the Fair Labour Standards Act for demanding work hours from essential employees without paying them. The lawsuit was filed by AFGE on behalf of all federal employees who are still going to work. Justin Tarovisky and Grayson Sharp, both officers at the Bureau of Prisons, are also among the plaintiffs.
AFGE is one of the biggest federal workers unions in the country. The union’s president, J. David Cox, argued that it was “inhumane” to force workers to stay on their posts without pay. According to him, the lawsuit was meant to protest workers from unreasonable disruptions to their livelihoods.
“Our nation’s heroes, AFGE members and their families deserve the decency of knowing when their next paycheck is coming and that they will be paid for their work,” he said, adding that many of the affected workers are veterans or law enforcement. “Our intent is to force the government and the administration to make all federal employees whole.”
Cox also highlighted how a big proportion of essential employees are those in charge of public security. It was particularly unfair, he said, for a border patrol agent or an immigration enforcement officer to put their lives on the line without even getting the salaries they deserved.
“Our members put their lives on the line to keep our country safe,” said Cox, “requiring them to work without pay is nothing short of inhumane. Positions that are considered ‘essential’ during a government shutdown are some of the most dangerous jobs in the federal government.”
Heidi Burakiewicz from KCNF DC, a law firm representing AFGE in this case, echoed Cox’s reasoning.
“The harm to federal employees began at the first moment of the shutdown,” she said. “Hundreds of thousands of federal employees are working under sometimes dangerous conditions, including the plaintiffs who were forced to work overtime without pay.”
She also explained how the government’s current practice constituted a “blatant violation” of labour laws. “Approximately 420,000 federal employees are continuing to work, but don’t know when they will get their next paychecks,” she said. “This is not an acceptable way for any employer, let alone the U.S. government, to treat its employees. These employees still need to pay childcare expenses, buy gas, and incur other expenses to go to work every day and yet, they are not getting paid.”
Jacqueline Simon, a policy director at AFGE, believes that the government is not always strict in enforcing its rules. If an employee is ill and cannot return to work at the moment, for instance, his or her office may not take it seriously although technically the employee can be fired for the absence.
Around mid-January, she said, employees would begin to see their paychecks disappear or significantly reduced.
“People can only afford to keep a job without pay for so long,” she said, implying that many might soon start to look for other jobs.
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