Justice Dept.’s Defense of Unpaid Attorney Positions Doesn’t Satisfy Union

Flickr user michaelhebb

A federal employee union has condemned the Justice Department’s recruiting of unpaid workers, as the agency maintained it is operating within the framework of the law.

The Justice Department recently posted more than a dozen openings for “experienced attorneys,” without offering compensation. The department said a sequestration-induced hiring freeze and other budget cuts have forced it to seek the unpaid workers.

“This is the most retrograde policy imaginable,” said Jacqueline Simon, public policy director for the American Federation of Government Employees. “America fought a Civil War to end uncompensated labor. There is no reason to reintroduce that terrible idea under the euphemistic label of ‘volunteerism.’”

The Justice Department may be operating in murky legal territory. Federal statute places strict limitations on the work volunteers can do in place of paid employees.

“An officer or employee of the United States government or of the District of Columbia government may not accept voluntary services for either government or employ personal services exceeding that authorized by law except for emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property,” current law states.

The Justice Department, however, said in a letter to the National Association of United States Attorneys -- which had previously called on the agency to cease the unpaid employment program -- it was not recruiting volunteers, but rather “gratuitous services.” Justice is therefore making the distinction between a volunteer and an employee who accepts the compensation rate of $0. Federal statute sets a maximum on the amount the department can pay for its attorneys, but it sets no minimum.

This is not the first time the Justice Department has exploited this loophole. The agency posted similar positions last year

(Image via Flickr user michaelhebb)

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