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After the Shutdown, the Lowest Paid Workers Still Won’t Get Back Pay

Union and labor supporters at a rally by federal workers at the Philadelphia International Airport to end the government shutdown. (Matt Slocum / AP)

President Trump and Congress reached a deal to open the government until Feb. 15 and to give 800,000 federal workers 35 days of missed wages. Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, told CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday that while payroll won’t happen all at once, “We hope that by the end of this week, all of the back pay will be made up and, of course, the next payroll will go out on time.”

Over half a million federal contractors however—those whose employers have contracts with the federal government but are not directly employed by it—have no such relief.

As Danielle Paquette reports in The Washington Post, “Unlike the 800,000 career public servants who are slated to receive full back pay over the next week or so, the contractors who clean, guard, cook and shoulder other jobs at federal workplaces aren’t legally guaranteed a single penny.”

These workers, Paquette writes, tend to be “the lowest paid in the government economy, generally earning between $450 and $650 weekly, union leaders say.”

Audrey Murray-Wright, a cleaning supervisor for the National Portrait Gallery, said money became so tight, between gas bills, mortgage payments, and electricity, that she stopped taking her blood pressure medication and started rationing groceries. “I never, ever want to tell my son, ‘Don’t drink all that milk so you can save your brother some,’ ” she told Paquette.

While workers like Carl Houtman, a chemical engineer for the Forest Service in Madison, Wis., told USA Today that he cried “Alleluia!” when he heard that the government reopened, and added, “It’s great for everybody,” returning to work offers little hope for contractors like Murray-Wright. Héctor Figueroa, president of 32BJ SEIU, a union that represents 170,000 service workers on the East Coast, explained in an email to the Post that “Contracted workers are still in limbo,” saying:

The men and women who clean and secure federal buildings have been living on the edge of disaster for five weeks. Many of these workers are facing eviction, power shut-offs, hunger and even going without lifesaving medications. And unlike direct federal employees, they may never be made whole.

To prevent a repeat of this situation, two bills have been introduced in Congress, one from Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., and another from Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., that seek to remedy the problem. Twenty Democratic senators have signed on to Smith’s bill so far, but as Vox reported Tuesday, no Republicans have joined them.

One of Smith’s co-sponsors, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., told Vox, “I don’t know of any Republican opposition to this,” and is still hoping that back pay for contractors could be added to the next bill that funds the government.

Meanwhile, contractors like Murray-Williams and Loniece Hamilton, a guard at the Smithsonian who told the Post that she had to drain $1,000 from her bank account during the shutdown, are struggling to figure out how they’ll make up for their lost paychecks, with Feb. 15, when the latest funding bill expires, looming.

Ilana Novick
Blogger / Editorial Assistant

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