Taylor Kirkpartick, 12, holds a sign protesting the government shutdown in Ogden, Utah.
Taylor Kirkpartick, 12, holds a sign protesting the government shutdown in Ogden, Utah. Natalie Behring / Stringer

Representative John Franklin Farnsworth was a soldier in the Union Army, a Republican member of Congress, and a lawyer. In debating the Reconstruction Acts of 1867, readmitting Southern states into the Union, he said: “The first duty of the Government is to afford protection to its citizens.”

As the longest partial government shutdown drags on with no end in sight, the government is violating its most basic duty. By refusing to pay hundreds of thousands of federal workers their wages for the essential jobs they are performing during the shutdown, the government is violating the law.

A federal law, called the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), requires that people get paid at least the minimum wage, get paid overtime if they work more than 40 hours a week (with some exceptions), and get paid on time. According to a federal court decision stemming from the 2013 government shutdown, the government is in violation of the FLSA. Federal employees in that case who were not getting paid while being forced to work during the government shutdown are entitled to receive double what they would normally get paid — but they had to opt-in to a class action lawsuit to be eligible for those additional funds.

Why would the government knowingly violate the law and potentially owe double damages to more than 400,000 workers, which could total billions of dollars? Because of an arcane law dating back to the 1800s called the Anti-Deficiency Act (ADA). That law criminalizes the disbursement of government funds in excess of what Congress has appropriated. Fortunately for workers, a federal court decided that the ADA doesn’t excuse the government from paying its employees, even if Congress has not appropriated the money to fund those payments.

All of this puts federal employees in an impossible situation. If they stay home from work and demand the pay they are owed under federal law, they risk disciplinary action. If they go to work and remain unpaid, they are giving up the ability to earn a living and pay for their families’ groceries, rent, and medical bills.

But we don’t have to live this way, lurching from shutdown to shutdown. The only reason why we allow the government to operate this way is because we choose not to change our laws to solve this problem.

In the absence of a government that adheres to its first duty, we have seen many people and industries from the private sector step forward to ease the burden on federal employees. We all share the responsibility to shoulder the burden of the dysfunction in Washington, D.C. and to stand with the federal employees about to miss their second paycheck.

My law firm, HKM Employment Attorneys, is offering free legal advice to any federal employee being harmed by this shutdown. We are holding a nation-wide call to provide information and answer questions federal employees have about their rights during this shutdown on Thursday, January 24th, at 12 pm PST. To get information about the call, federal employees can visit our website.

But more broadly, we can all call on our leaders in D.C. to amend the Anti-Deficiency Act to prevent another one of these senseless shutdowns from ever happening again. Congress could easily revise this law as part of the resolution of this shutdown to reflect what the courts have already told them: federal employees who are forced to work through a government shutdown are entitled to get paid on time, and, if they aren’t, the government will owe them double their normal wages.

To minimize the short-term damage to the families of federal employees and the long-term cost for the federal government, Congress should amend the Anti-Deficiency Act to authorize the continued payment of federal employees during any lapses in government funding. This is not a radical suggestion. In fact, it is how the government used to function for decades.

Congress should also include an authorization to continue paying federal contractors during lapses in appropriations to ensure low-wage workers, who may not get back pay, do not end up paying the price for our government’s failure and our elected officials’ inability to find compromise on unrelated political issues.

The bottom line is simple: federal employees who are keeping our country safe are struggling to find a way to pay rent and put food on the table. They should not have to suffer just because the President and Congress cannot get along. We at HKM will do whatever we can to make sure those workers get the information they need and the compensation they deserve, but we can all stand up for them and demand our elected officials put an end to this needless cycle of disruptive shutdowns.

Jason Rittereiser is a managing partner at HKM's Seattle office and a former candidate for Washington’s 8th Congressional District.