Ruling delayed on nonpayment of U.S. workers Judge expresses fear of complete shutdown

November 17, 1995|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A federal judge expressed reluctance yesterday to risk a complete government shutdown by ordering the government to send home more workers because it can't pay them. But he kept open the possibility that he would do so despite his doubts.

Judge Emmit G. Sullivan put off until today his ruling on whether 1 million federal workers can remain on the job without pay while 800,000 are on forced furloughs.

Saying he confronts "a possible terrible situation," the judge said: "I have to consider the consequences" of ordering the government to furlough even more workers because there is no money, as of now, to pay them.

If he were to do that, the judge said, it might lead to a complete shutdown of the government because the government then could not retain any unpaid workers, even those doing essential tasks.

The American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union representing federal workers, has asked Judge Sullivan to declare unlawful the work-without-pay orders under which more than 1 million federal employees have had to continue working.

The union's attorney, Virginia A. Seitz, conceded that a complete shutdown might result from the kind of decision the union wants. But, she said bluntly, "it is not your job to excuse" the two other branches of government from their responsibility to decide which workers are truly essential and finding a way to pay them.

Congress and the White House, she said, have the responsibility under the Constitution to decide "which government functions should go on."

Judge Sullivan showed interest in a compromise suggestion the workers' union put forward: a ruling declaring that compelled work without pay is illegal, but postponing that decision's effective date for three days to give the president and Congress time to find a way to pay those kept at work.

The government's attorney, Thomas H. Peebles, warned that the union's lawsuit threatens government chaos. If the judge rules that the government must pay workers to keep them on the job, Mr. Peebles argued, every federal worker would have to go home until Congress voted money to pay them.

The government, the lawyer said, has been especially cautious in keeping essential workers on the job to ensure the safety of lives and property. But, he said, a ruling of the kind the union seeks would threaten to undo that effort, posing "a very serious potential" for a government-wide crisis.

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