Employees of federal agencies have by and large seen equilibrium restored after the 35-day government shutdown in December and January caused many to be kept out of work.
Feds were guaranteed back pay under legislation that passed before the government reopened, initial paycheck issues have largely passed and the 1.9 percent federal pay raise that was enacted in appropriations legislation was finally implemented March 28.
But contractors who spend their days working alongside federal employees — often in janitorial, security and food service positions — are still struggling to make up what was lost in the shutdown, as back pay was not afforded to them.
“When the government shut down, the government people got paid, but the contractors didn’t get paid,” said Lila Johnson, a custodian with Integrity Corp who provides services part time at the Department of Agriculture.
“It’s not fair to us to not get paid,” she said.
Israel Barrett, who provides cleaning services at the Department of Interior through a Chimes contract, told Federal Times through a translator that he’s lost approximately $2,300 due to the shutdown, even with a $360 gift check his contracting company gave him.
“Those are things that have long term consequences. For example, I have to take vacation time during that time off just so that I can get paid and pay my rent. I lost my vacation for the rest of the coming year,” said Barrett.
Out-of-work contractors have had to rely on family, friends, their churches and union donations to continue paying their rent and bills while they went without a paycheck.
“I have had to borrow money from my family members, and I still have to pay back that. But we survived,” said Julia Quintanilla, a contracted cleaner at USDA also with Integrity Corp, via translator. “I admit, it was really debilitating and demoralizing.”
Some contractors work multiple jobs at different agencies already and were able to work partially during the 35-day period. Barrett felt lucky that the whole government didn’t shut down, allowing him to continue his evening job with the Department of Labor. Quintanilla, who works at both USDA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development was not so lucky, and temporarily lost both sources of income.
“One thing people don’t realize is that a lot of us might be caring for sick people or older relatives,” said Quintanilla. “People who don’t make a lot of money suffer the most under these situations.”
Barrett, Qintanilla and Johnson are all responsible for taking care of family members and rely on money coming in from their contracted government positions.
And for those contractors that struggled to make ends meet during the shutdown, their financial challenges didn’t end with the resumption of government operations. For some, it was weeks before the next pay period kicked in.
“Even when I went back to work, I had to wait a whole month before I saw a decent check,” said Johnson.
Some lawmakers have sought to provide low-wage contractors with a certain level of back pay in the event of a future shutdown.
In January, a group of Democratic senators introduced a bill that would reimburse federal contractors up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Lawmakers then tried to include that legislation in the February government funding package, but were told that President Donald Trump would not sign a bill that included contractor back pay, according to Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.
Though efforts to pass contractor-focused legislation continue, Barrett is not confident that Congress will be able to get something through.
“I have more faith in God than I do in Congress. And it doesn’t seem to me that there’s that much hope right now of getting the money, because the company is saying that ‘the government didn’t pay us for that time,” said Barrett.
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.