Workers union director says shutdown lawsuit will prove Trump administration not 'above the law'

A lawsuit suing the Trump administration over the ongoing government shutdown will prove the federal government is not above the law, said a policy chief for the country's largest union representing federal workers. 

Jacqueline Simon, a policy director for The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), joined “Rising” to discuss the union’s lawsuit against the Trump administration. AFGE claims that the administration is violating the Fair Standards and Labor Act, by allegedly illegally forcing as many as 420,000 federal employees to work without any foreseeable paycheck.

“I guess we hang on to the notion that we’re still a nation of law and that the federal government is not above the law and they can’t require people to work without paying them for it,” Jacqueline Simon, a policy director for The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), told Hill.TV’s Krystal Ball and Buck Sexton on “Rising.”

Federal workers are generally paid on a bi-weekly basis and many of those caught up in the shutdown have gone without a paycheck since the shutdown began on December 22. There are up to 420,000 federal employees deemed “essential" who are expected to work without pay and at least another 380,000 other federal workers are deemed “nonessential.”

Although federal workers in previous shutdowns have been granted back-pay once the shutdown was over, Simon noted that the action requires approval from Congress and isn’t automatic.

“It has gone that way in the past but it requires an act of Congress to pay people for the work that they’ve already performed,” she said. “It’s not automatic and the federal government needs to adhere to the law."

The Senate in December passed legislation ensuring back pay for workers, and similar legislation was introduced but not taken up in the House. In the past, such language has been included in the spending bill that re-opens the government.

If Congress does not pass legislation to pay these federal employees, then Simon said that The Fair Standards Labor Act “would come into play.” The bill, which was first signed into law in 1938 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was designed to protect workers from unfair labor practices. It allows for "liquidated damages" —  or unpaid overtime compensation —  that could potentially double a worker's pay.

The union's current lawsuit bears a striking resemblance to a lawsuit filed after the 2013 government shutdown during the Obama administration.

An estimated 800,000 federal employees were furloughed then for 16 days, while another 1.3 million were required to report to work without known payment dates. A federal judge ultimately ruled that federal workers received double what is owed to them in back pay, but the Washington Post reported that some workers have yet to receive those payments.

 The current shutdown began Dec. 22 and has lasted 12 days. Action is not expected until after the new session of Congress begins on Thursday.

— Tess Bonn