Thousands of furloughed employees have been told to work without pay. Is that legal? – NBC News

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By Danny Cevallos

The Internal Revenue Service is recalling about 46,000 employees furloughed by the government shutdown to handle tax returns and pay refunds. The employees, nearly 60 percent of its overall workforce, won’t be paid for their work during the shutdown.

Meanwhile, at the Food and Drug Administration inspections of food facilities are resuming, again, using unpaid staff, as hundreds of furloughed employees are returning to restart “high risk” food inspections that were halted during the government shutdown.

Unlike other private employees, the unpaid federal workers on the job without pay have long been legally prohibited from striking to protest these conditions.

Jan. 16, 201901:14

On Aug. 3, 1981, after several months of negotiation with the FAA, several thousand air traffic controllers went on strike. In response, then-President Ronald Reagan ordered these federal employees to return to work within 48 hours or risk losing their jobs. Over 11,000 controllers refused, so Reagan fired them and banned them from returning to work at the FAA, ever.

That ban was not an overreach of executive power. Federal law provides that federal employees who participate in a strike against the government are barred indefinitely from government employment, and may even be subject to criminal prosecution.

Although striking against the federal government is a felony, prosecutions have been rare. One court has observed it is the “sworn duty of the Attorney General to enforce these laws…but for reasons not fathomable by this court they have apparently yet to initiate any investigations or enforcement proceedings.”

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