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Federal workers’ union calls government shutdown ‘unconscionable’

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) is suing the Trump administration, arguing that it's illegal to force 400,000 federal employees to work without pay. According to J. David Cox, the president of the union, the Fair Labor Standards Act and legal precedent support his organization's stance. Cox sits down with Judy Woodruff to explain why he finds the shutdown "unconscionable."

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now let's look now at those bearing the brunt of the shutdown.

    The country's largest union for federal workers is suing the Trump administration over the shutdown, saying the government owes damages to the 400,000 federal employees who are working without pay.

    J. David Cox is president of the American Federation of Government Employees, who filed the complaint.

    Mr. Cox, thank you very much for joining us.

    So, before I ask you about the lawsuit, what do you make of this back and forth between the White House and Democrats?

  • J. David Cox:

    Part of it, clearly, there are 800,000 federal employees who are being held hostage who, January 11, will not receive a paycheck; 420,000 of them are being required to go to work every day, do their job, and will not get paid on payday.

    The other have been sent home, furloughed, without pay at the current time. That touches the lives of at least 2.5 million people. That's unconscionable.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You're talking about the tangible effects of this.

  • J. David Cox:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, the lawsuit was filed. Your organization filed this lawsuit yesterday. On what grounds?

  • J. David Cox:

    On the grounds of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, which says that the government or any employer has to pay its employees at least a minimal amount of money.

    This lawsuit was filed during the last government shutdown and was won. And it goes back to a Depression era law where it says even the federal government has to pay its employees at least a minimal amount of money, the minimum wage.

    And I'm not an absolute expert on all the technical laws of it, but still, yet, clearly, it was won in the last government shutdown. And no employer, no other employer in this country is allowed to require its employees to go to work and refuse to pay them on payday.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, what you're saying is, basically, it's OK if you continue to argue about the government and whether it's shut down or not, but you need to pay these employees? Is that it?

  • J. David Cox:

    You need to pay the employees. You need to fund the people's government. The government belongs to all the citizens of this country. Right now, Border Patrol agents are on the border, patrolling the border. Correctional officers are in prison guarding us against some very harmful people.

    Other folks, the Coast Guard, are doing their job. No — loans can't get processed for people of disasters of the floods and FEMA. All these type things are being held up because these employs are furloughed or they're being required to go to work. That is no way to run a country.

    What if Google or Amazon did this to their employees? You would have every employer, everybody. It would be on the news continuously. Only the federal government does this to its employees.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you believe that this could be settled, this lawsuit could be heard and decided on in the next few days? We're hearing…

  • J. David Cox:

    We don't believe it will be heard in the next few days, anything with the court system. Right now, the Department of Justice is not funded, and so…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So they can't hear the suit.

  • J. David Cox:

    They can't hear it, but the process will go forward with the lawsuit, as was the case in the last government shutdown.

    But the real issue right now is funding the federal government, paying federal employees, and most of our members' take-home pay is $500 a week. That is not a lot of money, $500 a week.

    They are not going to be able to put a roof over their head, feed their children, all the things that are necessary. They are becoming very, very scared and concerned.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that was my question. For people watching who don't — may not know anyone who works for the federal government, you're saying they are real people with real needs.

  • J. David Cox:

    Yes, ma'am. Real people. Right now, these are cooks who cook the food in federal penitentiaries, not high-paying jobs, but they're required to go to work. They're required to go cook that food.

    And they don't get paid on payday. No employer — the government is the only entity that exempts itself from paying its employees when they don't have an appropriation. But there is this one process in the law where it says that they have to pay a minimal amount that goes back to a Depression era stance in the law.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    J. David Cox, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, we thank you.

  • J. David Cox:

    Thank you so much.

    And let's bring this shutdown to an end and put federal employees back to work caring for the American people. We want to go to work and do our jobs.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank you.

  • J. David Cox:

    Thank you.

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