Air traffic controllers, others affected by partial government shutdown

By Kyla Asbury | Jan 16, 2019

MORGANTOWN — As the partial government shutdown continues, a lawsuit filed by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association was dealt a tough blow by Federal Judge Richard J. Leon when he refused to issue an order for union members to stay home from work.

Air traffic controllers have been deemed essential and have continued to work during the shutdown without pay. The union filed a lawsuit Jan. 11 in federal court in Washington, D.C., against President Donald Trump and several other officials for the shutdown.

Anne Lofaso, a professor at West Virginia University said the union filed the suit against the Trump Administration for injunctive relief and damages for failing to pay air traffic controllers during the government shutdown.

The lawsuit says the skies of the United States are overseen by the hardworking employees of the United States Federal Aviation Administration and that the air traffic controllers are employed by the United States through the FAA to ensure the safe and expeditious flow of traffic – both in the air and on the ground – at airports across the country and in radar rooms.

Anne Lofaso   WVU

"Each day, the FAA’s Air Traffic Controllers are responsible for ensuring the safe routing of tens of thousands of flights, often working lengthy, grueling overtime shifts to do so," the complaint states. "In fact, plaintiffs’ job is so demanding and requires such rare skills that the FAA struggles to maintain a full complement of certified Air Traffic Controllers, even under normal circumstances."

Lofaso said because the Trump Administration has declared these workers essential, that means they must work without any expectation for pay during the government shutdown.

"The lawsuit, if successful, would find that the Trump Administration has violated the Fifth Amendment by failing to pay workers without due process; would enjoin the government from continuing to refuse to pay them; and would award each worker affected backpay, damages, attorneys fees and the cost of the litigation," Lofaso said in an interview with The West Virginia Record.

Lofaso said there are several other issues not alleged in the lawsuit that she thinks the union could argue.

If the government doesn't pay them it's a 13th Amendment issue," Lofaso said. "There are also issues with the takings clause and the contract clause."

Lofaso said she would like to see the union amend its complaint to include the 13th Amendment claim because the government currently expects these employees to work without pay.

"While the administration might argue that these employees are not in a state of involuntary servitude because they can simply quit their job, the decision to quit is a Hobson’s choice between working without pay or not working and quitting a secure job with excellent benefits for the possibility of finding a job with equivalent wages and benefits," Lofaso said.

Lofaso said Congress needs to pass legislation that it will pay the government employees back.

"I don't think people realize these enormous things that are happening," Lofaso said. 

Lofaso said the economy needs government workers to be getting paid.

"Think of all the people that are still going to work every day, but now they're not going out to lunch—they're not putting their money back into the economy," Lofaso said. "West Virginia already doesn't have the strongest economy and we can't afford that. We need that money coming into our economy."

Lofaso said that is one of the things that really need to be thought through.

"We need grown-ups in Washington," Lofaso said.

Lofaso said Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito have been working hard to end the shutdown.

"I'm proud of both of them," Lofaso said. "They're doing a good job. They have been putting pressure on this. I do think they've represented West Virginia well — both of them."

The air traffic controllers union tells the stories of several government employees and the issues they're facing when it comes to not getting paid.

Kevin Bianchi has his wages garnished by court order for mandatory alimony payments and if he misses those payments, his ex-spouse could take him to court, which would endanger the security clearance he needs in his position as an air traffic controller.

Jonathan Barnett is worried he could get evicted for not paying his rent.

Lastly, Amanda Fuchs, a single mom of two, who also pays toward her brother's medical care and needs physical therapy for her own condition has much to worry about already without the added worry of not getting paid.

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