After more than three weeks of a government shutdown in which federal employees must work without pay, the situation is being compared to involuntary servitude. Last week, federal employees filed a lawsuit charging President Trump and his administration for violating the 13th Amendment, according to The Washington Post.
This is not the first of the lawsuits. What has become the longest government shutdown in U.S. history has prompted lawsuits from employees at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Bureau of Prisons, and the Federal Aviation Administration.
Now, the 13th Amendment, which put an end to involuntary servitude and slavery, is being invoked. According to the lawsuit, federal employees who refuse to work could be disciplined or removed from their job. The lawsuit likens this form of coercion to that which was barred in the 13th Amendment.
As the shutdown drags on, federal workers may lose their health insurance. President Trump has suggested that the shutdown may last ‘months or even years.’
This lawsuit will struggle to come to fruition, according to University of Illinois law professor, Michael LeRoy. He says the standard is very high for involuntary servitude and “courts don’t tend to view pressure as coercion.”
LeRoy points out that while there is no precedent for the situation that the federal employees are presenting, there has also never been a government shutdown that has lasted so long.
“If it’s true that somebody is threatened with termination if they don’t show up for a job when they’re not being paid today, that’s an unsettled legal issue — a court could rule that is legal coercion,” LeRoy said.
On Friday, Congress passed legislation that ensured furloughed workers will receive back pay when the government reopens. This will make no difference to the 13th Amendment claims because workers are still “being compelled to work without pay for an indefinite period of time,” says Michael Kator, the workers’ attorney.
If the shutdown lasts ‘months or years’ as Trump has suggested, the workers’ case for indentured servitude would be strengthened.