By Kevin Bogardus - 09/29/13 10:00 AM EDT
Federal worker unions are lobbying lawmakers for back pay in the event of a government shutdown.
They say government employees have suffered enough under the cutbacks from sequestration, and are putting pressure on President Obama to ensure that retroactive pay will be given if federal agencies close their doors Tuesday.
“We are trying to maintain pressure on this White House that in the event of a government shutdown, that any negotiated settlement includes an agreement that all federal employees — essential and nonessential alike — get paid when the government reopens,” said Matt Biggs, legislative director for the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers (IFPTE).
Unions say a shutdown would add insult to injury for workers who have been living under a pay freeze for three years.
“We think we have seen this movie before. We go through it every couple of years,” said Bob Silverman, president of the American Foreign Service Association (ASFA). “It’s embarrassing for the U.S. overseas when you have to explain to people that the U.S. government may have to shut down; we may have stay at home. It’s of course demoralizing.”
The unions are going on offense against the shutdown with demonstrations intended to highlight the impact on federal services.
ASFA, which represents members of the U.S. Foreign Service, protested the possible shutdown outside the State Department Friday, waving signs that said, “Don’t shut down diplomacy.”
The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) is organizing protests that will begin Monday outside federal agencies and run through next week.
Beth Moten, AFGE’s legislative director, said her union is lobbying for back pay if a shutdown occurs.
“This is not the fault of the federal worker. This is a political shutdown,” Moten said. “It won't be easy, and that's why we will be fighting very, very hard.”
Members of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) are also planning rallies to protest a government shutdown. NTEU President Colleen Kelley said back pay would become a priority for the union if the closure isn’t averted.
“If a shutdown happens, absolutely, positively that will become a priority to ensure those employees are paid,” Kelley said. “Right now, we are focused on trying to avoid the shutdown and make sure that employees have the information they need leading up to this final wire.”
Back pay for federal workers could also come before the courts.
In April 2011, AFGE sued the federal government for lost pay in the event of a government shutdown, which was then averted in a last-minute deal between Democrats and Republicans. Moten said the union was considering using legal action again this time.
“Our attorneys are looking at that right now. No final decision has been made yet,” Moten said.
Federal workers will have their defenders on Capitol Hill. Among them is Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who said he believes that back pay for federal workers should be part of an agreement to get the government running again, if it comes to that.
“A lot of them, I would venture to guess, are living paycheck to paycheck,” Cummings said. “We, as a Congress, need to be more sensitive to their needs.”
The federal government shut down twice in the 1990s during the budget battles between President Bill Clinton and the Republican-controlled House. Furloughed federal workers received back pay both times.
But there’s no guarantee that federal workers would be compensated this time around.
“I think we would all agree that it was a very different time and a very different Congress, but without exception, we believe they should be paid,” Kelley said. “It's just totally inappropriate and unfair to put them in any other position. We are going to do everything we can to make it happen.”
Union officials said they expect Republicans would look to cut federal workers’ pay and benefits if brokering a deal to end a government shutdown. Labor is pressuring the White House to hold the line if it comes to that.
“We know this House will throw federal employees under the bus as soon as they can, so we need the president step up and fight for us,” said Biggs with IFPTE. “We view the administration and the White House as the folks to do that.”