A lawsuit against the federal government by employees who were required to work without pay during the shutdown in 2013 is growing as hundreds of thousands of workers are notified of their eligibility to join, lawyers for the plaintiffs say.
Some federal workers were sent home for 16 days in October 2013 after Congress failed to approve a budget to keep the government funded. Others were told to keep working.
Federal agencies sent notices this month to people who could be covered by the lawsuit — workers deemed "essential" during the shutdown, including federal corrections officers, firefighters, air traffic controllers, Border Patrol agents and Park Police.
At least 350,000 employees were supposed to be notified this month of their eligibility, according to the lawyers. The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in October 2013, alleging that the government violated the Fair Labor Standards Act during the shutdown.
Workers eventually were paid retroactively, but they were not paid on time, the lawsuit says.
Since the eligibility notices started going out this month, mostly by email, more people have asked to join, attorney Heidi Burakiewicz said, and about 15,000 are now part of the lawsuit.
"The phone was sort of ringing off the hook, and we're getting lots of emails from people with questions," she said.
Burakiewicz said "federal employees are still upset" about how they were treated during the shutdown. "People are not over it."
One of the new clients is Crystal Carpenter. Her late husband, Jason, supervised inmates who worked in the kitchen at a federal prison in New Hampshire. Carpenter, 35, does not work for the federal government but learned about the lawsuit from posts on Facebook.
She said her husband fell ill in September 2013 but didn't know what was wrong. His supervisor told him that he would not be paid if he took sick time, and he died a few months later of pancreatic cancer, Carpenter said.
Her husband wasn't in financial position to take unpaid leave, and he didn't want to leave his colleagues with more work because of his sense of camaraderie and responsibility, Carpenter said.
The shutdown "prevented him from doing the testing in more of a timely manner," Carpenter said. "He was terrified that the government was going to shut down for weeks and weeks and weeks."
Carpenter does not claim that her husband would have survived without the shutdown — his cancer was very aggressive, she says — but she believes that working through that period made matters worse.
"It added to an already bad situation," she said. "It definitely had a lot to do with his suffering."
The Justice Department is representing the government in the workers' lawsuit. Spokeswoman Nicole Navas said the department does not comment on pending litigation. She said her agency and more than 30 others have been notifying current and former employees that they might be eligible to join the lawsuit.
The government has not released figures on how many people have been notified, she said.
Lawyers for the federal government have said in court filings that it did not violate labor law because the workers were eventually paid.
A federal judge denied the government's motion to dismiss the case in July. Court of Federal Claims Chief Judge Patricia Campbell-Smith found that the government had violated the Fair Labor Standards Act but did not rule on whether the workers are entitled to damages.
The original plaintiffs were employees of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
One of them, Jeff Roberts, 49, an electronics technician at an Arkansas prison, said he wants the lawsuit to serve as a warning to the federal government.
"The biggest issue that I have right now is that there's still the possibility that it might happen again," he said. "It's important to get the word out there and let folks know that when the government does bad things, [it has] to be accountable, too."
Unlike typical class-action lawsuits, Burakiewicz said, potential plaintiffs must take action to opt in. They have until June 29 to join the lawsuit, she said.