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Federal Employees Sue Trump Administration Over Government Shutdown


Over the past couple of weeks, we've heard from many government employees frustrated by the ongoing partial government shutdown. Some of them are taking their frustration to court.

A group of federal employees is suing the Trump administration over the shutdown, claiming the administration has acted in conscious or reckless disregard of labor laws. Heidi Burakiewicz is a lawyer representing the plaintiffs in the suit. She joins me now in the studio. Welcome to the program.

HEIDI BURAKIEWICZ: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: So I understand of the 800,000 federal workers kind of affected by the shutdown, a good number are considered essential, right? Can you talk about who your clients are because they're part of this group?

BURAKIEWICZ: We filed a case with two plaintiffs, although we've been contacted by thousands of people who want to join the case. The two named plaintiffs both work for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. So all of the employees, for example, that work at the Federal Bureau of Prisons at an institution are deemed essential. Even during a government shutdown, we need someone at those prisons taking care of the inmates.

There's a wide variety of essential employees around the country - Border Patrol, federal firefighters, the people who we traditionally think of as first responders, the people who are important to truly keep the rest of us safe.

CORNISH: So what are your plaintiffs asking for in this suit?

BURAKIEWICZ: Well, first of all, all of the plaintiffs with whom I'm working, all the federal employees that have been in touch with us, the No. 1 thing that they want is for the shutdown to end. Right now, they're living in a state of turmoil. They don't know how long it's going to last or when they're going to get their next paycheck.

CORNISH: But they're also asking for financial compensation, right? I mean, what are they looking for?

BURAKIEWICZ: Well, absolutely, and they're entitled to it. So in the complaint, what we're seeking - hopefully, Congress will pass legislation and retroactively pay all of the employees. On top of that, however, they're entitled to liquidated damages. Liquidated damages, it's a payment equal to the amount of the wages that were not paid on time. When the...

CORNISH: So essentially you get paid because you experienced the delay.

BURAKIEWICZ: Yes. When the law was passed, the lawmakers determined this isn't supposed to be punitive towards the employer. But it's to compensate the employees for the interest charges, the late payment penalties, the cost, the harm that they've suffered by not getting paid on time.

CORNISH: So the government has argued in the past that law prohibits them. Federal law prohibits them from spending money that Congress has not allocated. And you've dealt with this in the past, right? And a judge ruled against them. What was the argument from the judge?

BURAKIEWICZ: Yes. In 2013, we filed a similar lawsuit on behalf of essential employees who worked during the October 2013 government shutdown. The government filed a motion to dismiss, claiming that their hands were essentially tied because of the Antideficiency Act. The judge ruled against them and confirmed that, in fact, the government had violated the Fair Labor Standards Act and still should have paid these essential employees on time during the shutdown.

CORNISH: I understand that the damages awarded in the 2013 case, it took them four years - right? - to win that in court. Was it worth all the effort?

BURAKIEWICZ: Well, the government is still in the final stages of calculating the damages in the 2013 case. The damages...

CORNISH: So people still haven't been paid who sued in 2013.

BURAKIEWICZ: Yes. Litigation is unfortunately never fast. And we had to resolve legal issues that I spoke about earlier. So from my perspective, those legal issues are identical. And I'm optimistic that this case will move much faster.

Quite frankly, none of my plaintiffs, none of my clients, we shouldn't have to sue to get them this back pay or this liquidated damages. The government just shouldn't have shut down. They shouldn't put the federal workforce in this position that they have to file a lawsuit to recover money owed to them.

CORNISH: Do you think these lawsuits are aiming also to send that message?

BURAKIEWICZ: Absolutely. All of the clients that I've worked with, that's their primary No. 1 goal, that this is not a way to treat the federal workforce. This is having real-life consequences on hardworking, blue-collar families, people who work in, often, very dangerous jobs.

For example, on Friday alone, in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, there was an inmate who was murdered. Two staff were injured responding when that inmate was getting stabbed. There were a total of, at least that I know of, eight staff injuries in the Bureau of Prisons at various institutions around the country.

So these people are going to work at very dangerous jobs, and they should get paid on time.

CORNISH: Heidi Burakiewicz, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BURAKIEWICZ: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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