Nearly 4,000 workers who were furloughed in a two-week partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration this summer were told Friday in an email that they will receive back pay.
The back pay will be in the workers' Oct. 18 paychecks, according to a copy of the email from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt.
The FAA said in a separate statement that it's using authority provided in a bill passed by Congress in August ending the shutdown to award the back pay. The agency was forced to partially shut down after Congress allowed its operating authority to lapse in a partisan dispute between the House and Senate.
The money will come from an aviation trust fund that partially funds FAA programs, including construction and safety grants to airports.
The shutdown cost FAA nearly $400 million in uncollected airline ticket taxes. The agency also issued stop work orders on more than 200 airport projects, putting thousands of workers in construction-related jobs out of work.
Furloughed FAA workers included 650 employees at the agency's technical and research center in Egg Harbor, N.J., as well as employees who handle airport grants. Forty airport safety inspectors voluntarily worked without pay, picking up their own travel expenses.
But air traffic controllers and most safety inspectors were not affected by the shutdown.
"A preventable failure of Congress resulting in significant hardship for thousands of FAA employees has finally been made right," Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., whose district includes Egg Harbor, said in a statement.
Members of Congress have said from the beginning it wasn't their intention to penalize FAA workers. But efforts in recent weeks to pass legislation specifically giving FAA authority to provide back pay haven't worked out for reasons unrelated to the pay issue. Transportation Department lawyers finally decided this week that language in the bill ending the shutdown was sufficient to provide the money to workers.
Trish Gilbert, executive vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which represents about 1,200 of the furloughed workers, thanked the Obama administration for coming up with the back pay funds and urged Congress to avoid another work stoppage by passing a long-term FAA funding bill.
"The stakes are simply too high to do otherwise," Gilbert said in a statement.
The last long-term FAA funding bill expired in 2007. The agency has been operating under a series of 22 short-term extensions since. The House and Senate each passed separate long-term funding bills earlier this year, but negotiations aimed at resolving the differences between the two measures have stalled, necessitating more extensions.
Senate Democrats balked at passing one of those extensions in late July after House Republicans attached a provision to the bill eliminating about $16 million in subsidies for air service to 13 rural communities. Republicans refused to drop the provision, saying the program is wasteful.
Democrats said they were concerned about setting a precedent in which they were forced to accept policy changes that hadn't previously been agreed upon in House-Senate negotiations. They said GOP lawmakers' real aim was to use the air subsidies as leverage to gain concessions on a provision in the long-term bill that would make it more difficult for airline workers to unionize.
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