With another potential government shutdown looming next month, activist groups are pushing for legislation to protect low-wage federal contractors, a group they say can least afford to lose income but has the fewest protections.
When Congress struck a deal to fund the government following a 35-day shutdown earlier this year, it included a provision that guaranteed federal employees back pay in all future shutdowns.
But the legislation ignored contractors, including low-wage food workers, security guards and maintenance workers, who were neither compensated for lost work during the shutdown nor given any promises about their fate in the future.
“Contracted janitors and security officers are still digging out of a hole from [President] Trump’s 35-day long shutdown and now fear that Trump will put them, and their families through this trauma all over again,” said Kyle Bragg, president of 32BJ SEIU, the largest property services union in the country.
“The House has done all that they can, but time is up for the Senate to put partisan politics aside and fulfill a basic obligation to pay these men and women the wages they are owed,” Bragg added.
The problem has been a sticky one.
When Congress fails to approve funding for the government, or in the event that the president vetoes that funding, agencies are not legally allowed to pay their employees.
Until now, lawmakers have always voted to provide back pay to both employees who have been forced to work without pay and those who have been furloughed. For federal employees, therefore, the biggest concern was usually whether they had enough cash in the bank to make their next payments before the government reopened, a situation made more difficult by prolonged shutdowns such as the one that began in December of last year.
In mandating back pay for employees in all future shutdowns, Congress took a step to ease the anxiety of federal workers.
But in recent years, many low-wage jobs once filled by federal employees have been contracted out to firms that provide regular cleaners, security guards and food workers in the government’s buildings.
Those contractors have been left on the hook.
“A month without pay really sets you back. I’m still paying off emergency room visits for both myself and my daughter,” said Michelle Serrano, a federally contracted security officer at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, at a recent union event on the subject.
“I’ve been worried about another shutdown. The uncertainty keeps me up at night,” Serrano said.
The dysfunction in the appropriations process for the 2020 fiscal year, which began Tuesday, inspires little confidence.
While the House passed 10 of 12 annual appropriations bills along party lines, the consensus-driven Senate has failed to pass a single one. Last week, Trump signed an eight-week stopgap measure to keep the lights on through Nov. 21.
The central issue in negotiations remains Trump’s proposed border wall and his use of an emergency declaration to reprogram defense and Treasury funds toward building it.
Senate negotiators are working furiously to find a solution, but Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) has lamented that the deadlock could lead to a yearlong stopgap. House Democrats, meanwhile, have insisted that they will not pass noncontroversial spending bills unless there is agreement on all the spending bills, further delaying progress.
As funding talks drag on, Democrats are pushing for a back pay measure.
House Democrats included a bill called the Fair Compensation for Low-Wage Federal Contractor Employees Act, sponsored by Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), alongside an appropriations package in June.
“Federal contract workers and their families did nothing to cause this senseless government shutdown, but they are the ones who continue to suffer its consequences,” Pressley said last month.
The House bill would provide back pay to an estimated 580,000 federal service workers for the last shutdown. Democratic senators including Tina Smith (Minn.) and Chris Van Hollen (Md.) pushed to include it in Senate appropriations bills, but failed to win GOP support.
Republicans have raised concerns that large, wealthy contractors would see a back pay bill as an opportunity to squeeze funds out of the government and put it toward fattening their bottom line as opposed to paying out service workers.
Senate Democrats still hope to keep contractor back pay in the bill when the House and Senate meet to iron out differences in their spending plans — if that ever happens.
But even so, the bill does not address future shutdowns, leaving contract workers in a precarious situation. Union groups hope that passing a one-time back pay bill will leave the door open for a more permanent solution.
Ironically, controversy over the House’s spending plan, the very vehicle that would advance contractor back pay, could lead to another shutdown.
“Most people could not survive without 35 days of income,” said Serrano. “Why are contracted workers expected to?”