Some House Republicans are calling for punishment for a group of federal employees that called on others to take leave in response to the Israel-Gaza war.

Some House Republicans are calling for punishment for a group of federal employees that called on others to take leave in response to the Israel-Gaza war. Tetra Images - Henryk Sadura / Getty Images

Group of feds causes firestorm after ‘walking out’ over Biden’s Israel policies

House speaker has called for their firings, but the group is pledging further action.

A group of federal employees is facing pushback after organizing a protest against the Biden administration’s policies regarding the Israel-Gaza war, with top Republican lawmakers suggesting their actions should result in their removal. 

Feds United for Peace, a group that says it represents employees at more than two-dozen agencies, implored federal workers to take leave on Jan. 16 as a form of opposition to the U.S. government’s resolute support of Israel in the face of tens of thousands of civilian deaths in Gaza. 

The organizers identified themselves as a group of federal employees across a range of agencies "who believe it is our patriotic duty and moral imperative to urge our government to support calls for a ceasefire, and support humanitarian aid and access for Gaza." In an interview with Government Executive, two of the group’s leaders—who were granted anonymity to protect them from potential retribution—said they created the organization after meeting with other federal employees who felt moved to act. 

“We were feeling so, so frustrated with the direction [of] our government,” one of the employees said. The Biden administration is “an administration we all work for, and in general work for proudly and happily, but this is something that we couldn’t in good conscience stand by without doing something.” 

On its Instagram page, the group encouraged all participants to take annual leave in order to participate in what it labeled a “day of mourning.” The organizers, who each have more than 15 years of federal service, said employees should make personal decisions about whether to tell their supervisors or include in their out of office messages the reason for their absences.

They said they discussed the issue with ethics officials at their agencies and with attorneys and determined so long as they took leave, their protest would not constitute any violation of law or procedure. Still, they acknowledged their actions were not without risks. 

“Those of us who have been integral in this effort knew there could be negative repercussions,” a second organizer said. They added it is common for federal workers to disagree with the policies of an administration, but they typically do not stage formal challenges. This case was unique, they said, as the deaths in the region created a “moral urgency to act.” 

The Office of Special Counsel, the agency that oversees the federal law spelling out the limited restrictions executive branch employees can face in voicing their personal political views, recently issued new guidance clarifying that federal employees can discuss their opinions of the conflict in the workplace so long as they do not voice support or opposition for any politician or political party.

Feds United for Peace instructed participants to communicate about their protest only on personal time and not using government resources, including email accounts. OSC’s guidance followed a call from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., for the agency to investigate any potential Hatch Act violations concerning a letter from an anonymous group of political appointees and career employees in the Biden administration who called for a ceasefire in Gaza. 

At the State Department, in particular, some employees have leveraged available tools to voice their disagreements with the administration's policies, but officials and the union representing Foreign Service staff recently praised the administration for welcoming dissent and allowing internal discussions about the conflict. 

Feds United for Peace told members their actions should be protected, but their movement was without much precedent and therefore they could not make any guarantees. John Mahoney, an attorney focusing on federal employment law, said requesting and receiving leave should provide some protections for the employees, but other factors could still put them at risk. 

“They have First Amendment rights like anyone else to raise grievances with the government,” Mahoney said. They could still face punishment, he added, “if there is some issue about misusing leave, or they engaged in misconduct outside of work that has a nexus to their employment.” 

Doreen Greenwald, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said federal employees should take caution when engaging in activities like the “day of mourning.” 

“NTEU supports our members’ right to free speech and their ability to engage on issues important to them, but we have always advised them that they should exercise those rights during non-duty time,” Greenwald said. “NTEU has a proud history of fighting for federal employee rights, and when those rights are exercised within the law, employees cannot be disciplined or retaliated against in any way.”

The attention the group received caused backlash from House Republican leadership. House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., said in a tweet that any employee participating in the protest was “ignoring their responsibility and abusing the trust of taxpayers. 

“They deserve to be fired,” Johnson said. 

Reps. James Comer, R-Ky., and Pete Sessions, R-Texas, who chair the House Oversight Accountability Committee and its panel on Government Operations and the Federal Workforce, respectively, pledged to work with Johnson to “ensure federal agencies take necessary disciplinary measures against anyone who doesn’t show up for the American people, including to protest.” They noted federal employees have the right to protest, but said they cannot organize a strike. 

“Such a collective action, whether participants applied for leave or not, may constitute an illegal strike, and those participating should be prosecuted and subjected to appropriate disciplinary proceedings,” the lawmakers said. 

They added Democrats were getting a “taste of their own medicine” after they criticized President Trump’s efforts to erode civil service protections through his creation of “Schedule F.” Federal employees do not get to set policy, Comer and Sessions said, vowing to work with Johnson to come up with legislative solutions to hold the federal workforce accountable. 

Mahoney agreed if the employees did not secure annual leave prior to their protest, their “walkout” would probably be considered a strike and it would be a fireable offense. That they seemed to have at least mostly been granted leave, however, provides them with First Amendment defenses.

Still, if the employees posted on social media that they had refused to work that day because of their agency or the administration's actions, Mahoney said that could open them up to punishment. One of the 12 Douglas Factors that agencies must consider when determining whether to fire employees is the “impact upon the reputation of the agency” of their behavior. Federal workers generally do not have to disclose any reason for requesting leave, but lying about the purpose could also put them in hot water. 

The circumstances present a “novel issue” that could make for an “interesting fight,” Mahoney said, though he noted there is precedent for agencies firing employees over social media posts. Agencies could also opt to take less severe punishments if they determine misconduct did occur. 

“When I first saw [Johnson’s] post go up, I certainly got a very bad feeling in the pit of my stomach,” said one of the group’s leaders. Upon reflection, the employee was then hopeful nothing would come of it as the House speaker accused the group of organizing something—a strike—for which it did not call. “The fact that we were able to get the attention of someone at that level is a good sign that on some level we were effective.” 

Another organizer said the group had ambitious aims: to generate enough attention so as to spur President Biden to shift direction. The employee praised the administration for its willingness to accept dissent internally within agencies, but hoped the group could demonstrate the scale of the discontent on a governmentwide basis. The organizers declined to say how many employees participated in the “day of mourning,” noting they pledged to keep the participation of each individual a secret, but said they represented 30 agencies ranging from the State Department to the Transportation Department to the Social Security Administration. 

They remained optimistic their agencies would have their backs even if congressional Republicans follow through on seeking retribution, noting they were acting on their own time and any other approach would not “speak well to our democracy.” They likened the situation in Gaza to other humanitarian crises over the last century and said for people who have wondered how they would respond during those situations, “This is that moment.” 

Going forward, the group hopes to continue to use its platform to educate the federal workforce on the war and to “recommend different and creative positive solutions.” 

“Stay tuned,” one organizer said.