Federal employees in “essential” jobs are still being forced to work without pay, and some are accusing the administration of violating the amendment that got rid of chattel slavery.
In the fourth week of what is officially the longest federal government shutdown in history, some federal workers have decided to sue the Trump administration of violating the 13th Amendment, which Abraham Lincoln signed in 1865, officially abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude. The Washington Post reported that plaintiffs include workers in Texas and West Virginia, working for the Departments of Agriculture, Justice, and Transportation.
“Our plaintiffs find themselves in the exact same boat as virtually every other furloughed federal employee: bills to pay and no income to pay them,” Attorney Michael Kator, told the Post. “As this drags on, their situation will become more and more dire.”
Many federal workers — like TSA employees, FDA food safety inspectors, air traffic controllers, and Border Patrol agents — are in “essential” positions and are forced to come to work even though they won’t be paid. CBS affiliate WUSA estimated that more than 400,000 of the approximately 800,000 civil service workers affected by the shutdown are classified as “essential.” The Office of Personnel Management defines “essential” work as anyone “performing emergency work involving the safety of human life or the protection of property or performing certain other types of excepted work.”
Working without pay is tantamount to slavery, according to the argument posed by the legal team representing workers in the lawsuit. The language of the 13th Amendment is clear that, with the exception of incarceration, slavery and/or involuntary servitude is banned in the United States.
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
However, actually meeting the threshold of slavery is difficult to do in court, according to the Post. In the 1988 United States v. Kominski case, the Supreme Court ruled that, in the case of mentally disabled inmates doing forced unpaud farm labor under threat of further institutionalization didn’t constitute slavery, as it involved only “psychological coercion.” However, attorneys for the federal workers are convinced that the threat of losing one’s job for not showing up to do unpaid work during the shutdown counts as coercion.
“If this is not resolved soon, affected employees may find that beginning February 1 they will no longer have health insurance,” Kator told the outlet. “And, if this lasts ‘months or even years’ as the President has suggested, there will be defaults, foreclosures and even bankruptcies. A promise to pay back pay will not forestall those consequences.”
President Trump insists that he will only reopen the federal government if House Democrats pass a bill with at least $5.7 billion appropriated for a border wall, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) has promised she will not do. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that nearly two-thirds of Americans want Trump to reopen the government without border wall funding.
Tom Cahill is a contributor for Grit Post who covers political and economic news. He lives in Bend, Oregon. Send him an email at tom DOT v DOT cahill AT gmail DOT com.