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Lawsuits & Litigation

Judge: No Relief for Furloughed Federal Workers

— January 15, 2019

An assortment of federal workers’ unions are suing the government, many saying their employees are being forced to work without pay. But a recent ruling could put a halter any hope for relief.

A federal judge won’t compel the government to pays employees who’ve been sent home or furloughed during the government shutdown.

Yahoo News reports that U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon made the decision Tuesday afternoon. Despite hearing from three groups, Leon refused to grant a temporary restraining order that’d compel the government to compensate employees who’ve so far been working without pay.

Leon also dismissed a request that’d allow federal employees to stay home rather than labor away uncompensated.

Coverage from the Washington Post quotes Leon as saying that granting either motion would be “profoundly irresponsible.”

“At best it would create chaos and confusion,” Leon wrote, “at worst it could be catastrophic.”

Leon’s ruling, notes the Post, strikes down a consolidated claim brought by the National Treasury Employees Union and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. Both groups claimed their employee shouldn’t coerced into working without pay or any set date for compensation in the future.

Other unionized employees who’ve had to work during and throughout the shutdown include the Internal Revenue Service, Customs and Border Protection, the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Park Service, the Agriculture Department, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Federal Communications Commission.

The Post reports that the American Federation of Government employees has also filed a separate suit against the Trump administration, making similar claims that workers it represents need compensation or an alternative.

Gavel resting on open book; image by verkeorg, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, no changes.
Gavel resting on open book; image by verkeorg, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, no changes.

But, as Yahoo News’ Aarthi Swaminathan notes, workers’ legal options aren’t yet exhausted.

While attorney Michael Kator of Kator, Parks, Weiser & Harris called the judge’s decision “a disappointment,” he signaled that there is some room for recourse.

“The judge did indicate that he was willing to consider further argument on January 31,” Kator said, adding that the lawsuit is a “two-step process.” Even if Leon dismisses the first request—a temporary restraining order—Kator’s clients are still pursuing a preliminary injunction, which the judge “would continue to consider.”

Attorney Molly A. Elkin, an attorney representing the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, was less gracious in litigating against the government. Elkin had earlier implored the judge to “drop your legal hammer on the defendants” and tell the government and president to “get their hands out of the pockets of the air traffic controllers.”

“We need you, judge, to give this workforce hope that at least one branch of the American government has their back,” she said.

Justice Department attorneys, who are defending the federal government, meanwhile acknowledged federal workers’ dilemma but urged the judiciary not to involve itself in a political dispute.

“There is no doubt that real hardship is being felt,” Leon said, qualifying that “the judiciary is not and cannot be another source of leverage” in the resolution of political “squabbles.”

Kator insists that the matter transcends squabbles. Calling on the courts to defend the Constitution, Kator drew a parallel between his clients and 19th century slavery.

“They’re required to work without being paid—that is the essence of involuntary servitude,” Kator said. “The government has absolutely violated famous constitutional rights.”

Kator, writes the Post, hopes the real stories of federal workers suffering the shutdown’s consequences won’t be lost amidst legal quarrels.

“The real story is the effect this is having on people’s lives,” he said. “It is incredibly unfair that federal employees are made to bear the brunt of this. They have no say and they’re the ones who are taking the hits with some pretty dire consequences.”


‘The essence of involuntary servitude’: Federal unions sue the Trump administration to get paid for shutdown work

Federal workers face major setback in shutdown lawsuit

Shutdown lawsuit: Judge decides not to issue order forcing gov’t to pay workers

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