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Air traffic controllers sue Trump for being forced to work with no pay

Air traffic controllers in the tower at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
Air traffic controllers in the tower at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. (Seth Wenig/AP)

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association filed a lawsuit Friday against President Trump and other top federal officials, saying they are depriving controllers of their “hard-earned compensation without the requisite due process.”

The legal challenge, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, seeks a temporary restraining order against the federal government for allegedly violating controllers’ constitutional rights under the Fifth Amendment.

The controllers are among hundreds of thousands of federal workers being forced to work without pay, and those workers and their unions are launching aggressive challenges demanding relief from the dysfunction. Employees from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Forest Service filed a similar lawsuit Friday, as did workers at Justice, Agriculture and Homeland Security on Wednesday. That earlier suit said “involuntary, unpaid service . . . violates the Thirteenth Amendment’s prohibition against involuntary servitude.”

Controllers across the country started seeing pay stubs Thursday showing that they are receiving no pay for their work guiding planes to airports nationwide.

Molly A. Elkin, an attorney working on the lawsuit by the air traffic controllers union, cited the case of Amanda Fuchs, a single mother who is worried she won’t be able to afford needed physical therapy ahead of upcoming pelvic surgery. Fuchs, who lives in the Orlando area, also partly covers her brother’s medical costs, even as the family cares for their ailing mother, according to the suit. Her grandmother died Jan. 8 amid the shutdown, and Fuchs wasn’t able be with family and pay her respects, the suit says.

“We’re not blaming Donald Trump or anybody else for the death of the grandmother,” Elkin said. But Fuchs “cannot afford to travel for the funeral. That is something that’s an irreparable harm that even pay that we’re asking for will never restore.”

Other unions behind the separate suit Friday were the National Weather Service Employees Organization, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the National Association of Government Employees, and the National Federation of Federal Employees.

Federation President Randy Erwin said in a statement that when a worker performs a day’s work, a worker is entitled to a day’s pay. “With this lawsuit we’re saying, ‘No, you can’t pay workers with I.O.U.s,’” Erwin said. “That will not work for us.”

Trump’s insistence on billions of dollars for a wall on the southern border, and Democrats’ push to reopen government without it, has left Washington at an impasse. “Without it, our Country cannot be safe,” Trump reiterated Friday in a tweet.

Air traffic controllers get their first shutdown pay stub: $0.00

At the Federal Aviation Administration, more than 24,000 employees are working without pay because their positions are considered vital for “life and safety,” and more than 17,000 others are furloughed.

“Each day, the FAA’s Air Traffic Controllers are responsible for ensuring the safe routing of tens of thousands of flights, often working lengthy, grueling overtime shifts to do so,” the lawsuit says. The job “requires such rare stills that the FAA struggles to maintain a full complement of certified Air Traffic Controllers.”

Beyond the suit, controllers are organizing leafleting efforts to appeal directly to passengers at airports across the country, including in Dallas, Atlanta, Seattle and Portland, Ore., as well as at Dulles International Airport in Virginia, a union official said. They are seeking to underscore the importance of their work and end the shutdown more quickly, the official said, not to protest.

Asked Friday if the controllers would consider any type of walkout or other work action, Trish Gilbert, the union’s executive vice president, said the organization “would not condone or endorse any kind of activity like that. We have taken an oath and we proudly provide the service to the American public. . . . Even if this drags on, people will continue to come to work.”

Both the FAA and the Transportation Security Administration said Friday that airports continue to operate normally.

“We have seen no increase in sick leave requests nor operational impact due to staffing,” said Gregory Martin, an FAA spokesman. “We appreciate their dedication to their safety mission and professionalism.”

TSA spokesman Jim Gregory said 5 percent of the TSA workforce did not report for work Thursday, the last full day information was available, an increase of less than 2 percent over Jan. 10. More than 95 percent of almost 2 million passengers passed through their screening posts within 15 minutes, he said.

Darryl Fears and Ann E. Marimow contributed to this report.