A federal labor union has sued the United States government for failing to pay “essential” workers during a government shutdown that has stretched into a second week with no end in sight.
The American Federation of Government Employees announced the suit Monday, ten days after a budget dispute over border security and wall spending shuttered government offices and placed 380,000 federal employees on unpaid leave. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
However, 420,000 workers—including many at the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department—have been required to work without pay because their positions involve performing emergency work dealing with the “safety of human life or the protection of property.”
The AFGE and attorneys from the Washington-based law firm Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch said in the complaint that the government’s refusal to pay the essential employees violates the Fair Labor Standards Act and that employees are entitled to liquidated damages for any unpaid work performed during the shutdown.
The case, filed on behalf of two federal corrections officers, is headed by Kalijarvi Chuzi partner Heidi Burakiewicz, who also represented 25,000 essential federal employees affected by a government shutdown in 2013. A federal judge agreed the FLSA required all federal employees to be paid on time for their services and in 2017 ruled the workers were entitled to more than twice their back pay for the violation.
On Monday, Burakiewicz called the situation a “blatant violation” of the FLSA. She said the harm to her clients began the “first moment of the shutdown,” and that essential employees would be forced to continue their work with no idea when they would be paid.
“This is not an acceptable way for any employer, let alone the U.S. government, to treat its employees,” Burakiewicz said. “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.”
J. David Cox Sr., president of AFGE, said his organization’s members work “some of the most dangerous jobs” in the federal government and that failing to pay them was “nothing short of inhumane.”
“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. Our intent is to force the government and the administration to make all federal employees whole,” he said in a statement.
Nine of the 15 federal departments have shut down operations, but essential workers, such as air-traffic controllers, prison guards and health officials have kept working. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, border patrol agents and transportation security officers continue to work without pay.
There was no indication Wednesday when Congressional leaders and President Donald Trump might reach an agreement to end the stalemate.