In the Popeye comic strip, J. Wellington Wimpy was fond of telling tall-tales and consuming hamburgers. His recurring request in securing a burger was “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” Wimpy never returned on Tuesdays. Regrettably, this fictional character’s not-assuring statement is being replayed on a much larger and consequential scale today. Nonpayment of federal employees violates so many ethical rules and, importantly, prohibitions in Halacha (i.e., Jewish law).
As we are all aware, the President of the United States shutdown about one-quarter of governmental functions and locked-out public employees who perform the vital federal activities conducted by shuttered agencies. As a consequence, wages are being withheld from about 800,000 government workers, through no fault of their own. Fortunately, many religious and charitable organizations, including Hebrew Free Loan Societies, rabbis, synagogues, and spiritual leaders of other faiths are stitching together a safety-net to help allay some of the financial fears of impacted federal employees.
However, for this short essay, I would like to focus on public employees who are being compelled to continue to work or, as the result of deteriorating essential government services, are being forced back to work, albeit without pay. Their wages are being deferred until an unspecified future date, when the President decides to sign the relevant government funding bills that would reopen closed federal agencies. Irrespective of one’s position on the President’s demand for $5.7 billion to finance a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border, which has precipitated the partial shutdown and forced individuals to work without compensation, violates Jewish law and is patently unethical.
The Bible is quite explicit about prohibiting an employer to require an employee to work without prompt payment for their services. “You shall not defraud your fellow. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning.” (Leviticus 19:13) The Bible goes on to declare: “You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to the LORD against you and you will incur guilt.” (Deuteronomy 24:15) Jewish commentaries on these verses conclude that employers who fail to compensate workers at the established times are guilty of at least six Biblical prohibitions: oppressing a neighbor, theft, persecuting the poor, delaying payment of wages, nonpayment of wages when due, and failing to pay wages at sunset. (Talmud, Bava Metzia 112a) Later rabbinic authorities declare that employers who do not pay their employees on-time violate five prohibitions and fail to fulfill one obligation. (Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat 339:3) It is important to note that IOU’s, promissory notes or legislation promising “back pay” are not an acceptable substitute for timely compensation, because wages must be paid in currency and on-time. (Talmud, Bava Metzia 118a) There is no exclusion from this Biblical requirement for a governmental authority, such as a president.
A prime example of how to treat workers was exemplified by the late Aaron Feuerstein, an observant Jews and former president of Malden Mills. After his textile plant burned to the ground, Feuerstein paid his dislocated workforce for three months and covered their health-care benefits for about six months. He could have closed shop and suspended compensation. Instead, Mr. Feurstein went beyond the letter of law, treating his employees with respect and dignity.
Torah-observant Jews should immediately urge their elected federal leaders to provide compensation to the loyal federal employees who are suffering during this government shutdown. It is consistent with our faith and it’s the right thing to do. Our government leaders must not emulate Wimpy.