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Suit seeks back pay for 'essential' feds during shutdown

Nov. 6, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments

The federal government flouted a key worker protection law when it required some 1.3 million employees to stay on the job but delayed their pay during last month’s partial government shutdown, according to a recently filed lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

The shutdown began Oct. 1; between then and Oct. 5, so-called “essential” employees had to keep working, but then didn’t get their paychecks on the next scheduled payday, which should have happened by Oct. 17 at the latest, five Bureau of Prisons staff allege in the suit.

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, those employees were entitled to the $7.25 hourly minimum wage, or $290 for a 40-hour week, the suit says, adding that the government may also owe overtime for extra hours worked during that period. The government’s disregard of the act was “reckless,” the suit adds. It seeks damages for those amounts, along with interest, attorneys’ fees and expenses.

The shutdown, triggered by Congress’ failure to pass a stop-gap spending bill on time, lasted from Oct. 1 to Oct. 16. Under the government’s standard playbook, essential employees have to work but don’t get paid until after the shutdown ends.

But just because the government delayed employees’ pay didn’t mean that those workers “had delayed obligations to pay their bills,” Cyrus Mehri, the main partner in the Washington firm that launched the “collective action” suit, said in a Wednesday interview. Since the suit was filed late last month, Mehri said, his firm has been deluged with hundreds of calls daily from federal employees seeking to sign on. The firm is also asking a judge to require the government to let all 1.3 million employees know about the suit by email.

“All we’re looking for is to have their case to be heard,” he said. As of Wednesday, the Justice Department, which usually represents the government in legal matters, had not filed a response to the allegations.

The suit may be the first of its type; no similar litigation appears to have been filed after the last major shutdowns in 1995 and 1996, Mehri said.

Because the next bi-weekly payday fell well after Oct. 16, essential employees were paid on time for days worked later in the shutdown. In addition, federal payroll centers provided back pay to many workers well ahead of their next scheduled paychecks.

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