Employees Sue Government Over Shutdown

Collective action suit demands damages for excepted workers because they weren’t paid on time.

Federal employees who worked during the government shutdown are suing Uncle Sam for damages because they weren’t paid on time.

The collective action lawsuit filed by five Bureau of Prisons employees in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims alleges the government violated the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act when it delayed full pay for excepted employees until agencies reopened on Oct. 17. The suit asks the government to compensate excepted employees at a rate of $7.25 per hour times the number of hours worked between Oct. 1 and Oct. 5, as well as any applicable overtime. Employees who worked 8-hour days at that rate for five days would be entitled to $290 in back pay under the lawsuit, plus any overtime they are due.

If successful, the plaintiffs would end up receiving double back pay for the trouble the government shutdown caused them. All government employees, excepted and furloughed, should have received their back pay for Oct. 1 through Oct. 5 by now. Employees who remain on the job during a shutdown are guaranteed back pay by law; Congress has to approve back pay for furloughed workers, which it did for the 16-day shutdown. About 1.3 million federal employees were excepted during the shutdown.

The affected pay period ran from Sept. 22 through Oct. 5; the government shut down on Oct. 1, so most federal civilian employees were not paid for Oct. 1 through Oct. 5 in their Oct. 11 paycheck. Military service members and many Defense Department civilians, however, were paid on time during the government shutdown. The Pay Our Military Act, which President Obama signed into law on Sept. 30, ensured that all active-duty and reserve members of the armed forces, as well as any civilians and contractors working in support of those forces, were paid on time regardless of the shutdown’s duration.

Everyone has been “made whole” at this point, but the plaintiffs in Martin et. al v. The United States argue that the paycheck delay because of the shutdown meant they had trouble paying their bills on time. Martina Copeland, an accounting technician who works for the government, said her family struggled with payments during the shutdown. Copeland, who has three children and is married to another federal worker, participated in a press conference on Monday organized by lawyers at the Washington firm Mehri and Skalet. The firm, which specializes in employment discrimination cases, is representing the federal employees in Martin et. al v. The United States.

The Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to compensate covered nonexempt employees for any losses they might have suffered as a result of not receiving minimum wages or overtime pay on their scheduled pay day.

Correction: The original version of this story misidentified the type of lawsuit. It is a collective action suit. 

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