House Minority Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer

House Minority Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer Evan Vucci/AP

Democrats, Unions Demand Complete Government Reopening and Back Pay

Federal employee representatives implore Republicans to let them work.

House Democrats and federal employee unions gathered in the shadow of the Capitol Building Tuesday to call for the immediate reopening of government and retroactive pay to furloughed workers.

Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, Md., led a coalition of lawmakers from the suburbs of Washington, D.C. -- areas that are home to a large number of federal employees -- in the press conference. The lawmakers and union representatives said House Republicans were taking federal employees hostage, and called Tuesday, the first day of the government shutdown, a “tragic day” for the workforce.

“Our federal employees play a crucial role in keeping America strong, safe and free,” Hoyer said, flanked by dozens of workers who held up signs that read “let us work” and children with posters that said “Congress ruined my vacation.”

Hoyer said Republicans have “constantly berated” feds in their rhetoric, adding no private sector business could treat its employees so poorly. Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., echoed the notion that federal workers have been victimized, saying the average employee has given up $50,000 in pay and benefits over the last several years.

“This comes in the context of a several year effort to punish federal employees,” Moran said.  “This seems to be the final straw.”

Moran introduced a bipartisan bill to guarantee back pay for furloughed federal employees for the duration of the government shutdown. Currently, employees required to work during a shutdown are ensured retroactive pay once government reopens, but those on furlough need congressional action to receive pay.  

The bill originally included 11 co-sponsors -- including Virginian Republicans Frank Wolf, Rob Wittman and Scott Rigell -- but has since ballooned to 32. Moran said he has not received any indication that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, would bring the bill to the floor, saying the majority party’s leader is waiting to see how much support the legislation gathers.

“Every few minutes another member signs on to it because they realize [that] contrary to tradition, this may not be automatic, reimbursing federal employees, and they understand how unfair that would be,” Moran said.

Representatives from the National Treasury Employees Union, American Federation of Government Employees and National Federation of Federal Employees stressed the federal workforce is made up “middle Americans,” 85 percent of whom live and work outside Washington.

“This is not a game,” said Colleen M. Kelley, NTEU’s president. “This is about the lives of real people -- dedicated, committed public servants who want to get back to doing the work of our great country.”

Hoyer also addressed the recent Republican proposal to fund just three entities under the federal budget -- the National Park Service, the Veterans Affairs Department and the D.C. government -- saying the caucus had not determined how it would vote but indicated Democrats would not back the measure.

“There is no excuse for not opening up all of government,” Hoyer said. “There is not any excuse for leaving some employees behind while you take care of others.”