Federal contractors have never before been reimbursed for lost wages in the same way that federal employees have after a shutdown has ended, but a group of Democratic senators are working to ensure that contractors struggling to make ends meet will be paid back when funding is passed.
Sens. Tina Smith, D-Minn.; Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.; Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; Mark Warner, D-Va.; Ben Cardin, D-Md.; and Tim Kaine, D-Va., will introduce legislation Jan. 16 that would reimburse federal contractors up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of four after the shutdown ends.
According to Smith, that means the bill is structured to compensate contractors for the first $50,000 of their wages.
The shutdown prevents approximately 800,000 federal employees from receiving pay checks, but many more contractors, who rely on agency funds being paid to their contractor in order to receive salaries, are also out of work during a shutdown.
“There are also hundreds of thousands of other hardworking people, all of you in this room, who are essential to providing support to the federal government and allowing it to do what it does on behalf of the American people,” said Van Hollen at a Jan. 16 roundtable with impacted contract workers.
“After past shutdowns, there has never been any provision to make sure that all of you, who also want to go to work every day and have been shut out of work, that you’re not being punished.”
The federal government uses contractors to fulfill many commonplace and essential jobs at agencies, such as providing security, food service and janitorial work.
“What this is about is that every day people go to work as contractors or employees of the contractors, just like you around this table and around tables all over the country, [and] these are often folks that a lot of people don’t see,” said Smith.
“What I want to do is make sure that these people are seen. I think that once that happens, I’m optimistic that people will understand that we have an obligation to help make these families whole.”
During most shutdowns, contractors make the decision to either pay employee salaries out of company savings, use vacation day donation pools or not pay some of their employees at all for the shutdown period.
The Fair Compensation for Low-Wage Contractor Employees Act would require companies that hold contracts with the government to submit costs for review to their respective agencies, with records that those contractors are already required to keep.
Attendees at the roundtable, many of whom worked on cleaning and security staffs at Washington, D.C.-area agencies, said that they worried about their credit scores, missing mortgage payments, paying for healthcare and managing bills without their usual salaries.
“Just like federal employees, federal contractors work hard to keep our government running. So many of these workers live paycheck-to-paycheck and this painful shutdown has meant that many of them can’t afford to pay their bills. This legislation is an effort to ensure that these contractors who have been denied pay during a shutdown they had no role in causing receive the pay they deserve,” said Kaine in a statement.
Smith said that she and other senators are beginning work today to drum up support for the bill and added that she is “optimistic” that they will find bipartisan support in both the Senate and House.
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.