WASHINGTON – A federal judge Tuesday refused to force the government to pay federal employees who have been working without compensation during the partial government shutdown, rejecting arguments from labor unions that unpaid work violates labor laws and the Constitution.
U.S. District Judge Richard Leon said it would be "profoundly irresponsible" for him to issue an order that would result in thousands of federal employees staying home from work and not doing their jobs.
"At best it would create chaos and confusion," Leon said. "At worst it could be catastrophic … I'm not going to put people's lives at risk."
Leon ruled against a consolidated claim that the National Treasury Employees Union and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association filed, alleging that employees should not be forced to work without pay. Unionized employees have had to work without pay during the shutdown at agencies including the Internal Revenue Service, Customs and Border Protection, the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Park Service, the Agriculture Department, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Federal Communications Commission. The American Federation of Government Employees also filed a separate suit, alleging that employees should not be forced to work without pay.
As an example, the unions said Tuesday after the ruling that the IRS plans to end furlough for more than half of its workforce to prepare for tax filing season, meaning as many as 46,000 IRS employees could be forced to go to work with no pay while the shutdown continues. Up to 2,200 aviation safety inspectors with the Federal Aviation Administration are expected to be recalled by the end of the week and 500 FDA workers have been recalled to work and will be unpaid until the shutdown ends, among others.
Leon ruled at the end of the hearing, declining to issue a temporary restraining order compelling the government to pay its employees. His move keeps the status quo, allowing the shutdown to continue with no end in sight. The case, however, is far from over. Leon is scheduled to hear arguments regarding the unions' separate request for a preliminary injunction against the government on Jan. 31.
"Obviously we're disappointed that the judge was unwilling to enter the relief we requested, but he expressed a willingness to consider our arguments," said Michael Kator, an attorney for the plaintiffs.