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Lawyer for federal workers explains why they're suing over the shutdown

Aarthi Swaminathan
Finance Writer

This post has been updated.

Update 01/16/19:  U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon refused to force the government to compensate federal employees who have been furloughed because of the government shutdown.

Five anonymous and aggrieved workers who filed the lawsuit were suing the U.S. government on the basis that working without pay is a violation of the U.S. Constitution, such as the Thirteenth Amendment (which prohibits involuntary servitude).  

The plaintiffs, who work for the Departments of Justice, Transportation, Agriculture and Homeland Security, also claim that the government is violating the Fifth Amendment by prohibiting the taking on of outside jobs like driving for Uber.

The Statue of George Washington outside the closed Federal Hall Memorial National Historic Site in Wall Street January 11, 2019. (Photo: JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)

“Our plaintiffs are just concerned that there are no signs of this thing ending anytime soon,” Michael Kator, an attorney at Kator, Parks, Weiser & Harris, told Yahoo Finance.

“The ideal outcome is that we’d ask the court to essentially clear two things. We’re not asking for money damages, we’re only asking for the court to say that is it is unlawful, that it violates the statute in the constitution for the government to require people to work without pay.”

Furthermore, they are arguing that it is “unlawful for the government, when it’s not paying its employees, to impose limits on their ability to find outside employment.”

Federal workers are essentially stuck in a situation where “not only are you not getting any money, but you can’t get any money,” Kator added.

With the judge refusing to grant a temporary restraining order, the group will now wait for a second hearing on Jan. 31, where it will seek a preliminary injunction.

Government shutdown lawsuits increase

Almost 800,000 federal workers have already missed their paychecks last Friday and more lawsuits are being brought forward as opposition to the shutdown mounts.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association has taken a similar route — with another temporary restraining order — by suing the government for unlawfully depriving them of their wages without due process, according to a press release

Unions including the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 150,000 members at 33 federal agencies, and the American Federation of Government Employees also filed similar suits.

A demonstrator holds a sign that reads ‘Let Us Work’ during a protest against the government shutdown in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., on Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. Government shutdown lawsuits over lost pay are piling up. (Photo credit: Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

$2 billion withheld

We are currently on day 26 of the government shutdown, which is a result of a political deadlock between the president and House Democrats over funding for a $5.7 billion wall on the southern border. This is the longest-running shutdown in history.

The amount of missed paychecks could already be more than $2 billion, said left-leaning D.C.-based think-tank Center for American Progress.

Federal workers gathered in the capital on Thursday, demanding the government be reopened. “When they say, ‘one paycheck away from homeless,’ I’m not there, but I’m real close,” a Philadelphia-based IRS veteran told USA Today.

(Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)

‘Never been more depressed’

For federal workers who are unable to meet their loan repayments, they may be able to get a reprieve because of this unique circumstance.

“Many financial institutions are working with affected individuals to waive fees and adjust payment dates on mortgages, credit cards, and other obligations,” said CreditCards.com’s Ted Rossman. “They’re doing so on a case-by-case basis, so if you need assistance, reach out to them right away. Don’t assume they already know.”

Some credit unions are even offering zero-percent interest rate loans for up to $6,000 regardless of credit scores to help workers tide over.

In the meantime, “I think we’re stuck,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said on Thursday. “I just don’t see a pathway forward… I have never been more depressed about moving forward than I am right now.”

Aarthi is a writer for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @aarthiswami.

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