This morning, around half of the roughly 800,000 federal workers affected by the government shutdown turned up to work. These include TSA agents, correctional officers, border patrol, and all workers essential to maintaining public health and safety.
None of them will be compensated, which raises the question of what’s motivating them to clock in. Is it a sense of duty, a hope they will get backpay, or because they really love their jobs?
The answer is that they have little choice. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 forbids federal workers from striking. It’s notable that this was intended to prevent walk-offs from vital services by workers trying to leverage better pay—not a situation where the government hadn’t appropriated funds to pay the people performing those jobs. Eric Young, president of the union representing Federal Bureau of Prisons employees, told the Atlantic these federal workers are engaged in a form of “involuntary servitude.”
In other words, if they fail to turn up without calling in sick or taking leave, they could lose their job. For many living paycheck to paycheck, no job is perhaps worse than a job that temporarily isn’t paying you. They could also lose the pension and benefits many have spent years accruing.
Though unions have almost uniformly expressed outrage at the shutdown, the Atlantic reports that none have instructed members to not show up to work, which would in effect be telling them to break the law. Despite reports that TSA agents had been calling in sick or quitting their jobs, TSA’s public affairs officer was highly active on Twitter yesterday and today, citing low wait times at airports across the country, and calling reports of increased call-out rates and resignations from TSA members inaccurate.
And despite Donald Trump’s primetime address on Tuesday, the shutdown still seems to be a riddle without a solution. Until then, federal servitude will continue.