Associations and unions representing federal employees last week turned to the courts, claiming in multiple lawsuits that the requirement that they work without pay during the ongoing government shutdown violates their constitutional rights.
Update: U.S. District Judge Richard Leon on January 15 declined the unions’ request for a temporary restraining order that would have prevented the government from requiring federal employees to work without pay, saying only Congress can appropriate the funds needed for their paychecks. However, he scheduled a hearing for January 31 to consider the parties’ arguments more fully.
With no end in sight to the ongoing partial federal government shutdown, associations and unions whose members are directly affected began turning to the courts last week, challenging their agencies’ practice of exempting some employees from furloughs and forcing them to work without pay.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the National Treasury Employees Union, and a group of unnamed individual employees filed separate lawsuits against President Trump, several Cabinet secretaries, and the United States, each claiming violation of the Anti-Deficiency Act, which bars the agencies from spending money not appropriated by Congress but includes a provision allowing furlough exemptions.
In addition, the NATCA lawsuit and the case brought by the individual employees claim that their constitutional due process rights are violated by the requirement that they continue working without pay during the shutdown.
The anonymous employees’ case is being supported by several associations, including the National Weather Service Employees Organization, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the National Association of Government Employees, and the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE), the Washington Post reported.
“With this lawsuit we’re saying, ‘No, you can’t pay workers with I.O.U.s,’” NFFE President Randy Erwin told the Post. “That will not work for us.”
The individual employees brought an additional claim under the 13th Amendment, which prohibits slavery.
“If plaintiffs refuse the defendants’ orders to work without pay, they would be subject to discipline up to and including removal from federal service,” the workers stated, according to Government Executive. “[Plaintiffs] are therefore required to perform involuntary, unpaid service as a prerequisite to maintaining their property interests.”
The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Michael Kator, noted to Yahoo News that the agencies they work for—the departments of Justice, Agriculture, Homeland Security, and Transportation—are prohibiting them from working elsewhere to cover their lapsed paychecks. “Our plaintiffs are just concerned that there are no signs of this thing ending anytime soon,” Kator said.
The air traffic controllers’ suit comes as concerns mount about degrading operations at airports after federal employees have been forced to work without pay for weeks.
“If not for the shutdown, NATCA members would have begun to receive direct deposit of their pay into their accounts as of this morning,” NATCA said on Friday.
The lawsuits ask the courts for relief in various forms, including findings that the unpaid work requirement is illegal, temporary restraining orders to stop it, and in some cases, monetary damages.