The government shutdown may be over – for now – but federally contracted workers say they expect to be dealing with the fallout for months to come.
When President Donald Trump signed legislation on Jan. 25 to end the shutdown, he made back pay available, eventually, for the 800,000 federal employees who were furloughed or forced to work for 35 days without a paycheck. The legislation, however, did not include any financial recompense for the untold number of contract employees who were also affected by the shutdown, many of whom provide janitorial, cleaning, food and security services for the government.
In New York City, the Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ, represents about 500 federally contracted workers, 50 of whom went without a paycheck during the shutdown. Denis Johnston, vice president of 32BJ’s NYC commercial and security division, said even more workers would have been impacted if the shutdown dragged on into February.
“I think it was terribly destabilizing for our members and threw many people’s lives into turmoil,” Johnston said. “It’s outrageous that hardworking people who provide a vital cleaning or security function are having their lives and their families used as pawns in a political game.”
‘A real-life impact’
One of those union members, Keith Polite, said he was forced to use all of his vacation and sick time for the year during the shutdown.
“Suppose I get sick in June? I would have to call out of work and not get paid,” Polite said. “On top of not getting federal back pay, we have to worry about that, too.”
Without a month’s worth of pay, Polite said, the plight of the federally contracted worker will continue throughout the year as they try to catch up on rent, car payments and bills.
“It could ruin your credit, if you can’t pay on time,” he added.
Johnston said union members in the city and in Washington, D.C., where 32BJ represents more than 500 federally contracted employees affected by the shutdown, are still reeling.
“There are issues around paying for medication, buying food, paying for college tuition, paying the rent, paying the phone bill,” he said. “There’s a real-life impact and it’s really putting people behind the eight ball and it’s going to take them months and months to get out of this financial distress.”
Congressional action – or lack thereof
With the possibility of another shutdown looming just two weeks away, Johnston and Polite said they hope Congress approves legislation that would protect federally contracted workers by guaranteeing back pay.
The Fair Compensation for Low-Wage Contractor Employees Act, introduced in the Senate on Jan. 16, would provide full back pay to contracted service workers making less than $50,200 a year and restore paid time off that was used during a shutdown. The bill would also give contracted workers making more than $50,200 a year compensation up to that threshold, which amounts to about $965 a week.
A similar bill was introduced in the House of Representatives.
“If I’m working at a federal site, I should be protected just like other federal workers,” Polite said. “We’re all on the federal site, so we deserve to get paid.”
Congressional lawmakers, meanwhile, continue to negotiate over border security as the countdown clock ticks toward the next potential shutdown, which could be triggered on Feb. 15 when the stopgap funding bill that reopened the government runs out.
Trump has said he would not sign a long-term government funding bill that does not include funding for a wall along the United States-Mexico border, which is what sparked the first shutdown on Dec. 22.
On Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reiterated that there won’t be “any wall money” in the legislation to fund about a quarter of government agencies — including the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security — through the end of the year. Instead, Democratic leaders are pushing to allocate funding for additional ports of entry or border security technology.
If negotiators fail to reach a deal or pitch one that Trump does not like, the president has threatened to declare a national emergency to secure funding to build the wall, though the move would be likely to be challenged in court.
Looking to the challenges ahead, Polite said he hopes the two sides can come together and find a compromise before another shutdown throws more lives into upheaval.
“I’m very, very concerned. Even if they pass legislation to help federally contracted workers, I don’t know how long it’s going to take to implement that,” he said. “We’re afraid. People have kids, they have families, car payments, you name it. We don’t know what’s going to happen.”