Politics & Government

Shutdown forces Butner prison officers to work without paychecks

Federal employees march in protest of the government shutdown in Raleigh

Nearly a hundred government workers marched in protest of the government shutdown outside the Federal Building on New Bern Avenue on Friday, January 11, 2019 in Raleigh, N.C.
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Nearly a hundred government workers marched in protest of the government shutdown outside the Federal Building on New Bern Avenue on Friday, January 11, 2019 in Raleigh, N.C.

Correctional officers at the prison complex in Butner are among the federal employees who have been forced to work without pay during the partial government shutdown, and could soon join a lawsuit challenging the policy.

They are among the workers and contractors starting to feel the effects of the budget impasse that has stretched on for three weeks. In North Carolina, more than 1,000 federal workers have applied for unemployment benefits because of the shutdown, according to the state Department of Commerce.

An estimated 7,800 people in the federal workforce in North Carolina are affected by the shutdown caused by the budget impasse over President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall, The Washington Post reports.

“It’s really stressful because we go to work, a lot of us have 18, 19 years in with no problems, and we do everything they ask us to do, and all we ask is make sure our pay is in our bank accounts, and it’s not,” Michael Sharp, a Butner worker and union local official, said Friday at a protest outside the federal building in Raleigh. “So that’s a problem — that’s a major problem.”

Lawsuits filed this week by workers’ unions are challenging the federal government’s requirement that employees in some jobs are so essential that they have to show up even though they are not getting paid for now.

Dozens of federal workers at the Federal Correctional Complex in Butner and elsewhere in North Carolina have expressed support for legal action, according to one of the attorneys in a Washington, D.C., law firm involved in the lawsuit.

“Those employees are doing a very dangerous job making sure that inmates stay inside the prison there,” Robert DePriest said in an interview. “They shouldn’t have to, on top of that, worry about pay.”

DePriest said attorneys are in close contact with Butner correctional officers and other workers from across state agencies who live in this state.

Friday would have been payday

Federal prison officers, border patrol agents, immigration agents and airport transportation security officers are among the approximately 400,000 employees currently working without pay. Typically paid biweekly, the next payday was scheduled to be Friday.

Another approximately 400,000 federal workers have been furloughed without pay and are not allowed to return to work.

In Research Triangle Park, about 2,000 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency employees have been furloughed, and there is a ripple effect on contractors.

Furloughed workers who sign up for unemployment benefits have to repay the state once they return to work

if Congress allocates back pay. Federal workers aren’t necessarily prohibited from taking outside jobs during the furlough, but many at agencies like the EPA have to be cautious that they don’t violate ethics rules, according to an agency memo on the shutdown.

The law firm where DePriest works sued on behalf of two federal prison guards in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. It was retained by the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest such union in the country.

The law firm successfully sued during the protracted federal government shutdown in 2013, when a judge ruled the employees were entitled to have been paid at the time they were working. The attorneys argued that labor law required the government to pay at least minimum wage and overtime to those required to work even though they eventually received back pay, according to The Washington Post.

The National Treasury Employees Union has also sued for being forced to work without compensation. Border protection agents are the plaintiffs.

The three lawsuits ask a federal judge to certify them as a collective action so that all employees in a similar situation are included. In a collective action, employees have to opt in by signing up for legal representation.

Food pantry sees spike

A food pantry in Raleigh run by the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a nonprofit group that advocates for the needy, reports it has seen a spike in visitors who say they are there because of the shutdown. Kimberly Davis said the pantry urgently needs toilet paper, toothpaste, milk and meat.

“It’s scary,” she said while attending Friday’s protest, “because that affects grandparents, it affects children, it affects a lot of people.”

Nearly 100 people participated in the protest, including members of the American Federation of Government Employees and other unions. Federal workers’ unions held similar rallies across the country this week.

Sharp said Butner workers typically live up to an hour’s drive away, so there is a financial strain in having to buy gas, food and medicine without getting paid.

“It’s going to be real bad after this weekend because we’re supposed to get paid,” he said. “It’s a shame they’re playing games with people’s lives just for a wall that, really, it don’t exist.”

Another Butner worker and union official, Walter Green, said Trump and Congress should open the government back up and then negotiate over the border wall.

“Sometimes I think some people don’t realize how important is the job that we do,” Green said. “We’re the ones who end up having to deal with those guys that society says they don’t want to deal with anymore, and try to keep it a peaceful place. Then you want to cut our funding? It’s just turning out bad.”

Ken Krebs said EPA scientists like himself and engineers who work in Research Triangle Park are generally in a better position to weather the shutdown than are some employees such as prison and airport workers. But, he said, research has been put on hold.

“We were supposed to go on a sampling trip next week,” he said. “There were a lot of negotiations with the plant. Now we’ll have to start those negotiations all over again. It’s been very disruptive.”

How long will money last?

The shutdown of some federal agencies has worried states that they will have to pick up the cost of federally funded programs. In North Carolina, state agencies have said they have enough money to cover several weeks.

Gov. Roy Cooper wrote a letter to Trump that the Democratic governor released on Wednesday urging an end to the shutdown.

State officials are keeping an eye on funds for poor families, food stamps and children’s nutrition. The state health agency says it will likely run out of money for those programs in February.

“We will continue to monitor funding levels and are working closely with our federal partners on contingency plans to extend these programs as long as possible,” the state Department of Health and Human Services said in an emailed response Wednesday. “For the short term, we do not expect any major impacts for the individuals and families we serve or for our employees at DHHS.”

State agriculture officials have said hundreds of farmers are unable to submit disaster-recovery grant applicants because of the shutdown. Cooper has said the impasse also delays other disaster relief, including grants for rebuilding.

A federal judge has delayed the next hog farm nuisance trial in Raleigh because it wasn’t known when jurors would be paid. It was scheduled to start on Tuesday, but now will be rescheduled once the impasse is over.

Federal courts continue to operate even though the money to pay personnel runs out this month. U.S. attorneys are given the responsibility of deciding who is furloughed or who must keep working without pay.

U.S. Attorney Robert Higdon Jr. in the Eastern District of North Carolina said in an email that employees with public safety and national security roles remain at work. All of the criminal prosecutors in his office remain on duty without pay. Civil attorneys unable to reschedule deadlines or appearances are being allowed to work.

Crucial support staff remain on the job but their salaries will be paid after the shutdown is resolved, he said.

Peter Moore Jr., clerk of court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, said his office is operating on funding that is available until Jan. 18. Moore said the office has cut back on expenses and delayed some projects. He said the court hasn’t had to notify jurors that daily stipends and mileage could be postponed, although it could come to that.

“The court is functioning,” Moore said Friday. “We’re continuing with business as we can.”

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Craig Jarvis is in his seventh year covering politics for The N&O. He has been a reporter and editor here covering crime, legal affairs, general assignment, arts and real estate. Contact him at cjarvis@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4576.

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