U.S. air traffic controllers sue over mandate to work without pay

Air Traffic Controllers protest the 2019 government shutdown

Day in and day out, our nation’s air traffic controllers have one of the toughest jobs in the country. If you’ve never seen the inner workings of an air traffic control center, it’s hard to understand the scope and stress of the job. Each day these highly trained, dedicated public servants, many of whom are military veterans, oversee 29 million square miles of airspace, safely guiding 43,000 flights and 2.6 million passengers to their destinations. Once upon a time I had the opportunity to visit an air traffic control center, and my mind was blown at the complexity of the job. Seated next to a controller, I was able to plug in to watch and listen as each controller guided multiple planes at a time, each stacked at varying feet of elevation, a complicated puzzle where the pieces move at 550 mph (or more), all while speaking to the pilots through cracked, coded communication. 

Air Traffic Controller paycheck during 2019 shutdown
Could you miss a paycheck? More than one?

Today those air traffic controllers are working without pay. The government mandates that, even in the event of a shutdown, essential employees must continue to work. In fact, they are even forbidden from leaving to seek work elsewhere to make ends meet. An air traffic controller friend provided a screenshot of their paycheck today. 

Today the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) has filed a lawsuit claiming their constitutional rights are being violated with the government’s order to work without pay.

This action seeks declaratory and injunctive relief to remedy the defendants’ violation of plaintiffs’ rights under the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution, by depriving them of their hard-earned compensation without the requisite due process.Additionally, this action seeks damages for the United States’ failure to pay plaintiffs and those similarly situated employees at the FAA working in “excepted” status in accordance with the minimum wage and overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C.§§ 201-219. JURISDICTION AND VENUE 4. This action is brought for declaratory and other relief against the United States of

NPR interviewed several controllers for its Morning Edition program. I encourage you to take a few minutes to listen to these brief interviews and heartbreaking accounts of how the lives of these controllers are being affected every day this shutdown goes on. These controllers certainly aren’t alone. There are 800,000 federal employees and even more contractors going without pay. As they pull back from purchasing homes and cars, and even from paying their cellphone bills, student loans, etc., the ripple effects of the shutdown are becoming a slow-moving tsunami of economic disaster. 

Chart showing the increasingly drastic staffing shortage at the FAA

And for what it’s worth, this shutdown is just one more log on the bonfire of stress air traffic controllers have been dealing with in the past decade. As the Reagan generation of controllers retires, its members have not been replaced. This chart is a little dated now, but look at staffing drop-off created by the wave of retirements, a direct result of the Ronald Reagan union-busting that replaced a generation of controllers in 1981. 

We simply have not given the FAA the resources to train and hire replacement controllers. Not just replace them, but ensure they have the best training, benefits, and incentives to attract the kind of people that have kept our skies safe for generations. Government works, and the FAA is one of the best examples around. We just have to fund it. 

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