Trump may dock backpay for airport workers who called in sick. That’s ludicrously unfair

Not everyone who worked for free during the shutdown will receive full pay tomorrow.

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Americans may have to thank workers at the Federal Aviation Authority for the end of the government shutdown. By day 35, 800,000 government workers were due to miss their second pay cheque, millions of Americans were at risk of losing their food stamps and their rent subsidies, and concerns were mounting that the suspension of routine domestic food safety inspections could lead to a major food poisoning outbreak.

But it was only when flights across the US were delayed or cancelled because of the shortage of air traffic controllers, that Trump finally agreed to reopen the government for three weeks without a guarantee that he’ll get his $5.7bn border wall. 

Experts had been warning for weeks about the dangers the shutdown posed to aviation safety. As well as severe staffing shortages, many of the staff who did show up to work were stressed and anxious about their worsening financial predicament. Temporary food banks were set up outside some airports to cater to airport workers struggling to feed their families.

By the final day of the shutdown, over 7 per cent of Transportation Security Administration workers – who are responsible for baggage screening and airport security – had called in sick, more than double the usual rate.

Transport security officers “are struggling mightily to perform their jobs for the safety and security of the American public. But doing so while worrying about eviction, the ability to feed themselves and their families, to keep the heat on, to pay the bus fare to get to work, puts this safety at risk,” J David Cox Sr., the head of the American Federation of Government Employees, warned

Now, while most federal employees are due to receive backpay on 31 January, workers in agencies where a higher-than-usual proportion of employees called in sick – including the TSA, the FAA, and the USDA’s safety and inspection service – may not get the full amount.

According to government guidance, these agencies may determine that some of the staff who called in sick were in fact “absent without leave”, in which case they are not entitled to pay for the days in which they were absent.

This is ludicrously unfair. How is the government to determine who took a “legitimate” sick day and who did not? Not only is it outrageous that federal government workers should be required to work without pay for as long as a shutdown lasts, but in future, will they be scared to call in sick in case their pay is docked?

Federal workers are not allowed to strike, which means that during a shutdown they are forced to work under what one union leader describes as “involuntary servitude”. The National Air Traffic Controller’s Association made clear that the high numbers of workers calling in sick were not part of any coordinated effort.

Airport staff are not the only group who may never be fully compensated for the shutdown. As many as 580,000 federal government contractors, most working as cleaners, security staff or in other low-paid roles, will not automatically receive backpay on 31 January. They may never be paid at all. The Democrats have introduced a bill that would require federal contractors to be paid following shutdowns. By 29 January, Vox reported that not a single Republican had signed it (though this may change).

The 35-day shutdown, the longest in US history, cost the economy $11 billion, $3 billion of which will never be recouped, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Unsurprisingly, that cost will not be equally shared.

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.