Federal Workers’ Union Sues Over Forced Work Without Pay During Shutdown

on January 10, 2019 in Washington, DC.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images North America

A union representing 150,000 government employees — including workers at the IRS, Customs and Border Protection, EPA, FDA and other agencies — sued the government Wednesday, saying the Trump administration had too broadly interpreted a law that requires certain federal employees to work without pay during shutdowns.

“If employees are working, they must be paid—and if there is not money to pay them, then they should not be working,” Tony Reardon, the national president of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), said in a press release accompanying the suit.

Thousands of employees across several agencies have been working without pay as the partial government shutdown drags on.

The law in question, the Antideficiency Act, says the government may require employees to work during shutdowns in “emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property.” It was later amended to clarify that “the term ‘emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property’ does not include ongoing, regular functions of government the suspension of which would not imminently threaten the safety of human life or the protection of property.”

That latter category of work, the NTEU said in a complaint filed Wednesday, is exactly what the Trump administration — and specifically acting chief of staff and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, who approved agencies’ shutdown contingency plans — has allowed to take place.

“Many of the employees designated as excepted, in accordance with the OMB directive, including many members of Plaintiff NTEU, are persons whose services involve only ‘the ongoing, regular functions of government, the suspension of which would not imminently threaten the safety of human life or the protection of property,’” the complaint reads in part. “Their excepted status is thus inconsistent with the plain text of the Antideficiency Act.”

As an example, the union said the administration will likely force some IRS workers to help process Americans’ tax refunds.

“These employees would not be paid for the work that they perform during the lapse in appropriations,” the complaint reads.

The union asked the court to declare the Antideficiency Act unconstitutional, for bypassing Congress’ power of the purse, or, alternatively, to declare the Trump administration in violation of the plain text of the law because of its over-broad interpretation of who is considered an excepted employee.

The suit followed a separate legal effort from members of the union alleging that the administration has violated the Fair Labor Standards Act during the shutdown. The union held rallies across the country Thursday to highlight the impact of federal workers losing pay during the shutdown.

Read the suit below:

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