Not even eight months since the longest government shutdown in American history and the United States Federal Government is once again in position to punt its difficult decisions into the holiday season. Assuming the Senate approves the House’s short-term bill, the government will narrowly, and only temporarily, avoid the long-lasting and far-reaching consequences of another government shutdown. If this impasse continues, the government will turn off the lights and tell half its employees to work without pay and the other half not to show up at all.
Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch represents thousands of federal employees impacted by the last government shutdown who are once more facing uncertainty as they plan for the days and weeks ahead. Our clients immediately feel the impact of the government’s inaction. A government shutdown means 800,000 federal workers—security personnel, researchers, food inspectors, and countless others—won’t see a paycheck next payday. During the last shutdown, 380,000 federal employees were furloughed and 420,000 more had to report to work without pay. Some of those employees faced the potential for discipline if they didn’t make it to work, even if it was because they couldn’t afford the commute due to the missed paychecks.
When large numbers of workers aren’t getting paid, everybody loses. No paycheck means no purchases and missed payments. When there’s a chance the next paycheck won’t arrive, employees must delay or give up a planned purchase, miss a mortgage payment, or agonize in the face of an emergency. Even without the danger of a withheld paycheck, nearly 40% of American adults cannot cover an emergency $400 expense with cash, savings, or a credit card they could quickly pay off. Because many federal employees exhausted their savings during the last shutdown, it is likely that many have not been able to refill their financial safety net in the months since the last shutdown. As the largest employer in the country, financial uncertainty is sure to follow if the federal government withholds income from its workforce, and the effects will ripple out to every corner of the American economy.
Private businesses everywhere depend on federal workers—from the deli counter next to a government building to the daycare where employees drop their children. Take Oakdale, Louisiana, a small town of 8,000 where the federal government employs hundreds. During the last shutdown, Justin Boyd, the local barber, watched his daily income cut in half; a restaurant owner, Megan Crawford, saw her profits drop right after the first missed paycheck. The lost profits forced Crawford to cut hours for her employees at her small business, depriving even more people of their next paycheck. Then those workers stopped spending money, missed payments, and the cycle continued.
Government shutdowns cost a lot of money. The last three government shutdowns have cost taxpayers nearly $4 billion, covering back pay to furloughed federal workers, lost revenue, and late fees, among other expenses. Between those costs and the cutbacks in spending by federal employees, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the U.S. economy took an $11 billion hit. With many experts concerned that another recession may be just around the corner, adding a government shutdown to the mix right now could be the death knell for American workers, business owners, and the economic recovery started in 2009.
Alongside the American Federation of Government Employees, lawyers at Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch filed suit on behalf of federal employees who were forced to work without pay during the last shutdown. The 2018 case, which is currently making its way through the courts, alleges a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act on behalf of workers on the government payroll who were deemed “essential” or “excepted” and who were required to work during the partial government shutdown that started on December 22, 2018, but who were not paid on their regularly scheduled pay date. Although KCNF is working with AFGE on the case, it is not only for AFGE members but includes all eligible affected federal employees. For more information on that case, including whether you might be able to join the class and recover, go to www.2018governmentshutdown.com.
The 2018 shutdown case was based on a successful 2013 lawsuit, brought against the government by KCNF’s Heidi Burakiewicz. In that case, workers were awarded double pay for their missed pay period. Given the success of the 2013 lawsuit, the legal road map has been clearly laid out, which will help the 2018 case move along, and leaves KCNF fully prepared to file suit on behalf of federal employees in the event the government once again grinds to a halt.
The federal government is an employer like any other, subject to laws on how to treats its employees, requirements to pay its workers and owing penalties when it fails to do so. The only difference is that when you’re talking about the federal government, you’re talking about one of the largest employers in the U.S economy. Withholding pay from any worker causes immediate stress for each employee and their family, decreases profits for every business they frequent, and threatens the financial health of their community as a whole. Not paying employees for work performed is unacceptable for any employer, let alone the United States government. By filing and threatening these lawsuits, plaintiffs call for an end to government shutdowns because they harm so many people. That urgent message is important to every employee in these lawsuits and one that the government must hear as it struggles to reach agreements and steams toward the next shutdown.