On Wednesday 16 January President Trump signed the Government Employee Fair Treatment Act of 2019, which requires the government to compensate employees for “wages lost, work performed, or leave used” during the U.S. government shutdown, ongoing since 22 December 2018. The bill in question was passed with bipartisan support on the 11 January, with 411 yes votes and only seven no votes. Historically federal workers do receive backpay for wages they did not get during shutdowns, but there has been uncertainty whether, and when, they will get paid back. This bill will end the uncertainty for future shutdowns, but Federal employees won’t be paid until the shutdown is over.
On Friday 11 January, Speaker Nancy Pelosi explained that passing of this Act means “Congress is saying and guaranteeing that workers will be paid not only for this shutdown, but God forbid if we have any future ones, that their pay will be guaranteed.” On the impact of the legislation, Democratic Senator Cardin tweeted that it “is an important step toward providing our civil servants with some stability and hope.” And he continued with, “But it doesn’t help pay the bills now. To do that, we MUST reopen the government.”
Until a week ago the longest government shutdown in U.S. history was 21 days long, from 5 December 1995 to 6 January 1996. A day before the President signed the Agreement a federal judge ruled against the National Treasury Employees Union and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association claims that forcing people the work without pay violates labor law and the US Constitution. This wasn’t the first time federal workers had sued the government over not receiving their wages – the 2013 shutdown workers argued that the Fair Labor Standards Act was violated, and the court agreed and ordered the government to pay double the amount they are owed. According to the Washington Post, around “25,000 employees are still waiting to receive those damages.”
This brings to question, how long after this lapse in federal spending will workers receive the pay they deserve, if they ever do? The new act finally addressed the biggest concern for most Americans, which is why are they working without pay? Especially with the State Department officially ordering all of their staff back to work by “ the first work day of pay period 2” through an urgent message issued 27 days into the shutdown by Deputy Under Secretary for Management Bill Todd. By making sure federal workers get paid for their work, the government has calmed some fears, but this act won’t help them pay rent or buy groceries during the shutdowns. There is also a larger concern on how this lengthy shutdown will affect the U.S. economy, with hundreds of thousands of workers who haven’t been paid in almost a month and therefore cannot pay rent, pay back loans or put food on the table. According to a CNN Business report, “the White House estimates that delayed payments to federal contractors will create a $93 million per a day hit to economic growth.” All of these questions need to be addressed soon by the new Congress and the president himself, if they hope to regain public support and to ensure national economic stability for the future.
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