A growing group of Democratic lawmakers is pushing for legislation that would provide back pay to low-wage government contractors, and they want their measure included in any final funding deal that's struck before a Feb. 15 deadline.
While about 800,000 federal workers are guaranteed to receive back pay for the 35-day shutdown that ended Friday, furloughed contractors don't have any statutory protections to recoup lost wages stemming from the shutdown.
“The federal shutdown isn’t over for thousands of businesses and their employees,” said Sen. Tina SmithTina Flint SmithSenate Democrats call for diversity among new Federal Reserve Bank presidents Progressives push back on decision to shrink Biden's paid family leave program Democrats scramble for climate alternatives MORE (D-Minn.) on Tuesday, flanked by contract workers in the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 32BJ union. “Contractors like these ones have never been made whole after any shutdown, and that needs to change.”
Many of the low-wage contractors are security guards, cleaners and food workers who provide services in federal buildings. After a shutdown, it's up to individual contracting companies to decide who gets paid, and the businesses that furloughed workers aren't being reimbursed for lost service during the shutdown.
“It really devastated my family,” said Lila Johnson, who has worked as a sanitation worker at the Department of Agriculture for 21 years and ended up withdrawing funds from her life insurance policy.
Johnson blamed the shutdown on President TrumpDonald TrumpSix big off-year elections you might be missing Twitter suspends GOP Rep. Banks for misgendering trans health official Meghan McCain to Trump: 'Thanks for the publicity' MORE.
“He held us hostage for 35 days," she said. "I feel personally he’s still holding us hostage."
De’von Russell, a security guard at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, said he was concerned about whether he would be able to keep his car as he worked to make rent, pay off credit card bills and support his family, including his 3-year-old daughter.
“We’re still in the hole. Who knows when we’re going to get a decent paycheck?” he said, adding that it seemed unfair that federal employees would be fully paid while contractors like him were not.
“I don’t see the difference in why we should be held without back pay," he said. "We’re basically doing the same job they’re doing.”
Hector Figueroa, president of 32BJ SEIU, said those stories were common among low-wage contractors.
“Our members, they live from paycheck to paycheck," he said. "They hardly have any other resources or savings to rely on. And very often, if they don’t get paid back, their lives will be impacted forever."
Smith has introduced a bill that would allow certain types of contractors already defined in federal law to request payment from the government for their workers. Reimbursements would be capped at 200 percent of the poverty line, roughly $50,000 a year.
Smith said the legislation, which has garnered support from 37 senators, was discussed in the Democratic caucus lunch Tuesday and that there was interest from Democratic leadership in pushing it forward.
A House version of the bill, introduced by freshman Rep. Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleySix big off-year elections you might be missing Climate advocates turn sights on Wall Street House progressives call on Biden to end all new fossil fuel permitting MORE (D-Mass.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes NortonEleanor Holmes NortonIlhan Omar to Biden: 'Deliver on your promise to cancel student debt' Supreme Court declines to hear dispute over DC representation in Congress The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Tight security for Capitol rally; Biden agenda slows MORE (D-D.C.) has picked up 29 cosponsors, but no guarantees that it will be included in any final spending package.
“Our contract workers are out there and could be forgotten,” said Holmes Norton. “We have an obligation to make up what was lost.”