Government Shutdown 2014: Attorney Jonathan Bell Weighs In
Newscaster: Day 4 of the government shutdown, the House expected to vote today on if Federal employees will get back pay for the time that they are furloughed. Many workers, though, have also filed for unemployment. What’s next for the Feds, and will they get their back pay? If they get their back pay, will they also be eligible for unemployment benefits as well? We’ve got a gentleman joining us this afternoon who can answer those questions and others. This is Jonathan Bell, who’s a Federal employment attorney and our guest.
Good to have you here.
Attorney Jonathan Bell: Good afternoon.
Newscaster: You were earlier at a rally up on Capitol Hill where some Feds—I think some of them were from the Treasury Department, maybe other agencies as well—rallied because they’re trying to put a human face on this. If you don’t live in the Washington area, 800,000 Federal employees become sort of an abstraction. It’s sort of hard to conceive of who all those people are. What was the message that you took away from that rally earlier today?
Atty. Bell: That despite retroactive pay, these government employees want to go back to work. They want to provide a service for the government and for their country. It’s not just about pay. The primary supporters there were AFGE and NTEU, the biggest Federal employee Unions. President Cox of the AFGE did a terrific job organizing and advocating for the Federal employees.
Newscaster: Let’s talk about those Feds themselves now. I’m sure you are hearing from them in increasing numbers now, with a lot of them saying, “I’m starting to get up against it. We’re in Day 4 of this thing.” For a lot of them, the future seems pretty bleak, doesn’t it?
Atty. Bell: Yes. These are Federal employees that have recently dealt with a sequestration. They’ve dealt with about three years of pay freezes, and now this. All they want to do is return to work. They weren’t responsible for this legislative stalemate, and yet government is seemingly turning their back on them.
Newscaster: Are you hearing from some Feds too that maybe this is the straw that breaks the camel’s back, because of pay freezes, and sequestrations, and stuff like this?
The Federal government was, for a long time, seen as a pretty good place to work. It’s not nearly as cocooned as it once was, but it’s still a good wage for most of them—interesting, challenging work, and the feeling that I’m actually making a difference. What are you hearing, though—”I can’t work like this anymore”?–because really, they’ve become the political football here, basically.
Atty. Bell: That’s 100% correct except for the fact that these people are very patriotic. It’s more than just a paycheck. They probably could’ve gotten a better job or a higher paying job in the private sector. Whether it be 9/11 or they’ve been there for 20 years, they want to continue doing what they’re doing.
It’s more than monetary. They get enjoyment out of providing a benefit for the Federal government.
Newscaster: Let’s get to some nuts and bolts things. We talked a little bit about one of the potential questions we heard. The State of Maryland registered as many Federal workers in a day as they very often do in an entire year for unemployment benefits, and it makes perfect sense. If you’ve been furloughed, you qualify. But if you get that and you start getting state assistance, what about if Congress—as it looks like it might do—passes retroactive pay today? Do you owe that money back?
Atty. Bell: Yes, the money that you get from unemployment, you do have to pay back. I’m a full supporter of retroactive pay, however. I hope it does pass. It varies state by state. Some people have to wait a week before they could file for unemployment, but ultimately if they get paid, they’re going to have to pay that money back.
Newscaster: A little historical perspective is always valuable, too: There have been government shutdowns in the past where there wasn’t retroactive pay voted by Congress, so it’s by no means a certainty. It sounds, this day, though, like that might actually hold.
Atty. Bell: And I hope so. Again, this was no fault of the Federal employees and they should be paid. Also, the problem is the taxpayers are paying this money for these services—
Newscaster: [Interposing] That they’re not getting.
Atty. Bell: That they’re not getting.
Newscaster: How long does this last, then? Can we see the end yet?
Atty. Bell: I personally believe that it’ll be over within the next week, but there’s no guarantee. Like you mentioned, in ’95 it was for about three weeks. So who knows? When you’re living day to day as a Federal employee, you don’t know how you’re going to put food on the table, you don’t know how you’re going to pay tuition for your kids to go to college, this is a very nerve-wracking time for them, and they don’t deserve this.
Newscaster: If someone comes to you or you direct them to the many agencies that are available out there now that can help them, what’s the most frequent complaint? Is it, “I’m worried about paying my mortgage,” “I’m worried about my car loan,” things like that?
Atty. Bell: It’s all the above. These people don’t take extravagant vacations. They’re not worried about paying for their Ferrari. They’re literally worried about putting food on the table, a lot of them, and it’s really sad that it’s gotten to this state when you’re picking on a group that’s so essential to the United States.
Newscaster: And maybe that’s the idea of the fact that, essential or nonessential, it’s how they get rated within the government… but for an awful lot of Americans, it turns out what they’re doing has some essential benefit.
Atty. Bell: Realistically, they should all be considered “essential.” But yes, they are broken down to two categories. A lot of the essential workers are not getting paid right now, but ultimately once the spending bill passes, they’re guaranteed the retroactive pay as opposed to the furloughed employees.
Newscaster: One of the many ironies of this whole thing, all those brave Capitol police officers yesterday who were doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and protecting the members of Congress and the staff **** [00:06:03] everybody up on Capitol Hill, they were all doing that yesterday for an IOU. They’re not getting paid. They turn out to be nonessential.
Jonathan Bell, thank you. Good to have you here.
Atty. Bell: Thank you. Very nice meeting you.