As the federal government’s shutdown nears the end of its third week, one has to wonder why many federal employees are required to work even when they aren’t being paid. Could you as a private employer ever require your employees to work without pay during a crisis period at your business? Of course not.
About half of the 800,000-strong federal workforce is sitting at home worrying about their finances because they are “furloughed”. At least that group is not performing any work, so being unpaid is legal, although obviously unacceptable for their financial security.
The other half, those whose jobs involve public health and safety, are required to report to work even though Congress has not appropriated any money to pay their salaries. FBI agents, air traffic controllers, TSA agents, the Coast Guard, and, ironically, Border Patrol officers, are all working without pay right now. If one of these essential employees refuses to report to work because of the lack of compensation, he/she will be considered absent without leave and faces disciplinary action.
Most federal employees are on biweekly pay, so on Friday, January 11, the bulk of that workforce will receive nothing for work performed December 23 through January 4. No money for rent, food, transportation, etc., will be available to those workers until both houses of Congress pass funding legislation and the President signs it.
A federal shutdown has never lasted more than three weeks before, so the fact that the shutdown is dragging on and there are no positive signs of an agreement right now is obviously distressing to these employees, many of whom are poorly compensated and live paycheck to paycheck.
The federal government is unique in its ability to require this kind of unpaid servitude of its employees. As the Atlantic recently explained:
Since the enactment of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, federal employees have been legally prohibited from striking. That law was intended to prevent public-sector workers from leveraging a work stoppage that could cripple the U.S. government or major industries in negotiations for better pay, working conditions, and benefits. But it likely did not envision a scenario where the government would require its employees to work without paying them, as is the case now.
What prevents you as a private employer from taking a play from this playbook and requiring your employees to work without pay when your business has a cash flow problem?