Every day that the federal shutdown drags on, Americans complain about getting too little from the government in return for their taxes. But hundreds of thousands of public servants are really getting absolutely nothing from Uncle Sam in return for another day of work. As the gridlock in Washington paralyzes the federal bureaucracy, some agencies remains on auto-pilot, thanks to a stripped-down skeleton staff of drafted workers.
While about half of the workers impacted by the shutdown are officially furloughed, some 420,000 “essential” employees have been forced to report to work—for free. Their jobs include work under security and safety agencies, including airport security administration and border agents, enforcement and investigation personnel at the justice and transportation departments, and various first-responders.
For those working for free, while the shutdown drags on, many are pushing for formal restitution for the hours they’re putting in. The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the union representing federal workers, is suing the government for damages under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Filed by the law firm Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch on behalf of the impacted workers, the suit alleges that by imposing forced free labor, the administration demonstrates “conscious or reckless disregard of the requirements of the FLSA.” The case mirrors a lawsuit brought during the 2013 shutdown, which won compensatory damages for an estimated 25,000 workers. Although the incoming Congress, with Democrats controlling the House, is seeking to reach a legislative compromise with Trump that would allow the government to reopen while leaving other debates aside, the lawsuit signifies the anxiety and frustration that accumulates daily, as Trump continues holding workers hostage to his monomaniacal obsession with building a border wall.
In the announcement of the suit, J. David Cox Sr., national president of AFGE, denounced the administration’s exploitation of federal workers as political pawns, saying it “is nothing short of inhumane.… Our intent is to force the government and the administration to make all federal employees whole.”
In the meantime, for an indefinite period, national museums and zoo exhibits lie dormant, tax processing and marriage ceremonies remain on pause, and campsites are getting mired in neglected toilets and uncollected trash. But regardless of how (or whether) they are ultimately compensated, many of the workers running the government on neutral gear view the current crisis as a holiday insult capping years of injury: The pay scales of much of the workforce, as well as contracted private-sector workers, have long stagnated at unsustainable levels. The freeze in Washington compounds an ongoing impasse between Congress and Trump over pending legislation for a modest 1.9 percent pay raise in 2019.
Attorney Heidi Burakiewicz says that forcing civil servants to work without pay “is not an acceptable way for any employer, let alone the US government, to treat its employees.” And for many, the damage has already been done. Not just in terms of the hole left in their finances but also the other tolls of the shutdown—economic anxieties for families with mounting debts, and the civil service’s eroding trust in the nation’s biggest deadbeat boss—the White House.
The #ShutdownStories twitter fray percolates with bitter workers’ comments, like “I know I will *eventually* get back pay but my bills won’t wait for Congress to get its act together!” and “That moment of panic when you work for the federal government and wonder if you’ll be able to keep the lights on for your severely disabled child because ridiculously wealthy people are willing to sacrifice your paycheck for a long political battle.”
Other idled workers are even worse off: private-sector contractors who work indirectly for agencies are both overlooked and unpaid. Although they perform crucial work for public programs in professional and blue-collar positions, unlike direct federal employees, they are largely non-union, and Washington will owe zero back wages when the shutdown ends.
It doesn’t help either, that many federal contracts fuel poverty-wage service jobs, ranging from concession workers at monuments and staff at Medicaid hospital facilities. Under Obama, contract workers campaigned successfully for a floor wage of $10.10 per hour. But under Trump, according to the advocacy group Good Jobs Nation, agencies have provided “funds and benefits worth over $1.6 trillion to private employers, funding more than 12.5 million private-sector jobs, 4.5 million of which pay below $15 per hour”—which falls short of the living wage in many parts of the country.
The FLSA lawsuit is about as far as AFGE can legally go in holding Washington accountable for the violating workers’ rights. Striking is prohibited for federal employees, as it is for many public-sector workers on the state level. However, progressive labor activists argue that the shutdown has the potential to catalyze new militancy among federal workers.
According to Georgetown University labor historian Joseph A. McCartin, “Although they have no legal right to strike, it isn’t entirely clear that courts or the Federal Labor Relations Authority”—the agency governing federal labor issues—“would define a refusal to work without pay as a strike. This might be even less clear if such action was taken without official union authorization (i.e., as a kind of wildcat). We aren’t at that point yet, obviously. But if this was to last a couple of more weeks.…we’ll be entering some uncharted territory.”
A large-scale federal government workers’ revolt would be a radical repudiation of Trump’s political warfare. Yet even without such a mass action, small acts of resistance could yet unfold below the surface as workers struggle to survive through the limbo. Because the shutdown has resulted in the cancellation of paid leave for essential employees, they are barred from tending to scheduled family and medical appointments. But although they’re technically obligated to work, some workers have simply chosen to stick to their prior commitments—even if the government hasn’t. There have been anecdotal reports of no-shows, according to Burakiewicz; apparently workers are not showing up and instead opting to get “marked Absent Without Leave…. If you have AWOL that’s something that can lead to disciplinary action.” But when you’re working for nothing, the risk may be worth it. “The people who are living paycheck to paycheck, because of all the other medical issues and other things they’re dealing with in life,” she adds, “getting a paycheck that’s just even one day short can make a significant difference in someone’s life.”
Perhaps some workers who are fed up with politicians’ dereliction of duty have started opting for their own quiet insubordination.