Hundreds of federal workers who say they were not paid on time during the partial government shutdown are suing for compensation.
The suit, initially filed in October on behalf of five Bureau of Prisons workers, has since attracted interest from about 2,000 federal employees, many of them from Maryland, attorney Heidi Burakiewicz said.
Congress voted to make the workers whole after the shutdown ended, but the workers want to be compensated for having to juggle bills and plead with creditors amid the uncertainty of not knowing when the next check would arrive.
The lawsuit highlights the mounting tension between government employees and policymakers over cuts to the federal budget. Burakiewicz said her clients filed the suit partly as a warning shot as lawmakers headed into the next round of budget discussions.
"They want the case to send a message to the politicians that we don't want this to happen again," Burakiewicz said.
In the lawsuit, filed in the Court of Federal Claims in Washington, the workers contend that the Depression-era Fair Labor Standards Act entitles them to be paid on time or receive compensation.
While some federal employees were ordered to stay home during the 16-day closure, those in positions deemed essential had to stay on the job.
Nonetheless, those employees were not immediately paid for working between Oct. 1 and Oct. 5, they say in the complaint.
The Justice Department, which is representing the government, has not responded to the complaint in court and declined to comment on the case.
But Hans von Spakovsky, a legal scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the plaintiffs could have a difficult time in court because the law that led to the shutdown sets out criminal penalties for any official who spends money not appropriated by Congress.
"I don't really see how they're going to get around that," von Spakovsky said.
The suit is on hold after the judge asked both sides to investigate whether there is any pending legislation that would compensate the workers. Burakiewicz said she could not find any and expects litigation to resume soon. She said any federal worker who was deemed essential during the shutdown and not paid on time is eligible to join the lawsuit.
The plaintiffs are seeking minimum wage for the hours they worked but did not receive pay, in addition to any overtime that was late.
Lewis Jones, a police officer at a naval installation in Pennsylvania, and his wife, Amanda, say they were surprised when they were not paid on time.
"We were being told that our pay wasn't being affected, we were essential personnel, we were going to get paid. We weren't making any plans," said Lewis Jones, 36. "We looked at our paycheck and our pay wasn't there. We didn't get a notice or a warning or anything."
They borrowed money to make a mortgage payment, and their daughter's school raised money to provide lunches to students.
The portion of the paycheck that did come through "was just enough to cover gas to and from work and to put meals on the table," said Amanda Jones, 33.
She says the treatment of federal workers has worsened over the past two years as Washington has sputtered through cyclical battles over the budget. She thinks the government needs to cut spending, but that politicians have gone about it the wrong way.
"You never know what's going to happen unless you walk a mile in somebody's shoes," she said. "They're really making poor decisions on the areas that they're cutting back on."
Federal employee satisfaction has declined across the board in recent years, according to a survey conducted by the Office of Personnel Management before the shutdown but published last month.
OPM Director Katherine Archuleta blamed the drooping morale in part on furloughs, a three-year pay freeze and cuts to training programs, and issued a warning.
"Without a more predictable and responsible budget situation, we risk losing our most talented employees as well as hurting our ability to recruit top talent for the future," she said.
Chris Edwards, the director of tax policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, said perpetual crisis is not a good environment for making policy, but noted that salary growth in the federal government has outpaced that for workers in the private sector.
He said that is due in large part to the government continuing to award raises even during times of slow economic growth and recessions.
Edwards said the old bargain of a government job —a lower salary than might be available in the private sector, but better benefits and job security — has been replaced by a new system of good pay, good benefits and job security.
He said reforms should focus on finding ways to reward high-performing workers and improving the quality of managers. That would do more for morale than increasing pay, Edwards said.
"It seems like the occasional furlough or government shutdown is the least of federal workers' worries," he said.
But Jeremy Rowell, 39, a prison officer in Georgia who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said he feels as if his family has slid in recent years to the bottom edge of the middle class. He said his $50,000 salary is his family's primary income, he has a disabled child and he has suffered medical problems.
During the shutdown, he said, his family switched from loading up the cart at the supermarket once a week to going daily and just buying necessities.
"Nobody's going to get rich off this case," Rowell said. "My hope is that this case goes across the right person's desk before the next shutdown happens and they think twice."
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