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More Shutdown Fallout: Judge Rules Government Wrongfully Underpaid 1.3M 'Essential Employees'

Court of Federal Claims Judge Patricia Elaine Campbell-Smith has determined that the U.S. government violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by not paying 1.3 million essential workers “on time” during last year’s government shutdown. Under the FLSA, workers are expected to receive minimum wages and overtime pay on their scheduled paydays.   

In her ruling in Martin et. al. v. The United States of America, Campbell-Smith stated: “It is the view of the court that the government’s payment to employees two weeks later than the Scheduled Paydays for work performed during the October 2013 budget impasse constituted an FLSA violation.”

Nearly 2,000 workers have joined the lawsuit. Attorneys representing the plaintiffs have filed a motion which would require the court to authorize a notice to all affected workers.  The plaintiffs’ argument was summarized by attorney Heidi Burakiewicz in a February Fortune article:

The plaintiffs in this case — employees who worked during the shutdown that started on Oct. 1 but weren’t paid until after it ended on Oct. 16 — say that the Fair Labor Standards Act requires that workers receive at least minimum wage and overtime pay on their regularly scheduled paydays. For example, workers only received a partial paycheck for the Sept. 22 – Oct. 5 pay period and got the rest once the government reopened.

The lawsuit, originally filed in late October on behalf of five Bureau of Prisons employees, says that the essential workers are entitled to liquidated damages, which in this case are the minimum wages and overtime pay that they did not receive on time. Even though the employees eventually collected that money, under the FLSA, they are entitled to receive additional pay as damages.

The government argued that any damages caused by the delayed paycheck were the fault of the plaintiffs as they were fiscally irresponsible.  Campbell-Smith rejected this assertion:

…the government’s “suggestion at oral argument that the financial damage some plaintiffs might have suffered — in the manner of being unable to pay bills or medical expenses, and incurring fees — may have occurred not because the government failed to pay the employees on time as required under the law, but because plaintiffs may have made ‘poor financial management decisions.’”  The judge rejected the argument, pointing out that many federal workers are not highly paid, with “annual salaries starting around $28,000 in 2013,” leaving them a “narrow margin.”  But she also made clear that her ruling wasn’t limited to the lowest-paid federal workers, explaining that “a ruling for plaintiffs in this instance is consistent with the purpose of the Act ‘to protect all covered workers from substandard wages.’”

In a press release announcing the decision, Heidi Burakiewicz trumpeted this part of the judge’s opinion:

“During the argument the United States government contended that if any federal workers were caused hardship by not being paid on time during the government shutdown, it must be because those workers ‘mismanaged’ their money—not because the government failed to abide by its own labor law.  That’s an outrage not just to federal workers, but to all Americans.”

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