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Driving Uber, freelancing, babysitting: shutdown workers scramble for cash

As the shutdown drags on, government contractors are struggling to afford medication, baby formula and other necessities.

Union Organizers In Washington, D.C. Hold Rallies Calling For End To Government Shutdown
Hundreds of federal workers and contractors rally against the partial federal government shutdown outside the headquarters of the AFL-CIO January 10, 2019 in Washington, DC. 
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Donna Kelly, a Smithsonian security guard who’s been told not to come to work during the partial government shutdown, isn’t sure how she’s going to afford refills on her high blood pressure medication.

“If the shutdown don’t end soon, I could run out of medication,” Kelly tells Vox. “It’s for [hypertension] ... and it’s a matter of life and death.” Kelly is also paying for allergy and pain medicine, monthly costs that are piling up as the shutdown drags on.

Kelly, 63, has worked for a contractor for the Smithsonian, for nearly four years. Because of the shutdown, a paycheck she received in early January is the last she could see for awhile. And because she’s a contractor, she won’t be receiving any backpay for the work she’s missed while the government’s closed.

Kelly considered turning to the “gig economy” — driving for Uber or delivering for Instacart, in order to bring in some extra cash — but her car needs to be fixed. She said she can’t afford to pay for the repairs until she gets her next paycheck.

“Right now, I’m not sure what car repairs are going to cost. This week is my last week is the one I’m going to receive a check, so I wouldn’t dare use what little I have,” she said in early January.

“At this point, I’m filing for unemployment and I’m still waiting to hear about it,” Kelly added. “And my other plan is to file for food stamps and Medicaid, but I have no idea how things are going to turn out.”

Contractors like Kelly — who make up 40 percent of the federal workforce, and an estimated 500,000 workers in the agencies affected by the shutdown — are among those hit the hardest by the shutdown since unlike government employees the gaps in their pay won’t see any reimbursement. Contractors are paid directly by companies that can’t bill the government for services when it’s shut down. Since these companies won’t get paid, they, in turn, aren’t able to pay their workers.

The Trump administration hasn’t exactly taken on workers’ sense of urgency.

While Trump has argued that the partial shutdown serves a “higher purpose than next week’s pay,” the Office of Management of Budget suggested that government workers could offer their landlords practical services in exchange for rent, a recommendation that prompted significant blowback. A US Coast Guard advisory also noted that employees could hold garage sales to cover the bills, garnering similar outrage.

One Agriculture Department contractor told Vox that it’s unlikely landlords will be so compassionate. “I think some landlords just won’t give a shit,” she said.

While Trump and Democrats remain dug in on the fight over the politics of the border wall, the impact of this conflict on workers who provide government services through a contracted basis is already very, very real.

Contractors are scrambling to find alternative sources of income

The pool of government contractors has grown significantly over the last two decades, according to Paul Light, a New York University professor of public service, who’s studied the make-up of the federal workforce. In 1999, there were 2.4 million federal contractors, Light says. By 2017, that number ballooned to 4.1 million.

For many federal contractors, the enduring nature of the shutdown — which began on December 22 and has now become the longest shutdown in history — has come as a total surprise. Several contractors told Vox they figured this was just like the two other shutdowns last year, when the government only shut down for a few days at most.

“I assumed that something would pass and that it would be a quick one,” says Mitch Samuels, 23, a developer who works for the United States Geological Survey, who’s taken on some additional freelancing work during the standoff. “I didn’t prepare anything or line up any work before it started because I didn’t anticipate it going on any more than a day.”

A State Department contractor who declined to be identified, said she was applying for unemployment benefits for the first time and was unsure whether she would qualify. In the D.C. area, there’s been an influx of federal workers’ applications with companies like Uber and Lyft — and nearly 9,000 federal workers have filed for unemployment benefits, according to Politico.

“I’m looking for part-time work, office work, anything where people need assistance,” says Aaron Johnson, 26, who is also a security officer for the Smithsonian.

But even back-up plans take time to line up. Johnson said he had an interview set up for one opportunity, but he hadn’t yet heard back from other applications.

A spokesperson for 32BJ-SEIU, a union representing building services contractors, told Vox that pretty much all 600 or so of its members affected by the shutdown are searching for work, but not all of them have been able to find it.

The pinch is becoming worse as the shutdown drags on. Contractors I spoke with said that many of their large bills for this month had been covered with previous funds or savings something many Americans aren’t able to rely on, but were growing anxious about upcoming ones. Contractors talked about keeping close tabs on everything from the amount of baby formula they could buy to costs for an upcoming kid’s birthday party.

“From a personal finances point, this is really frustrating,” said the USDA contractor, who noted that she has a baby in child carewhich she cannot easily halt the cost of. “We can’t give up daycare without the real possibility of losing our spot.”

As Vox’s Emily Stewart reports, some banks and credit unions are waiving interest payments for credit-card bills and late fees for mortgage payments, but none of these offers have been automatic. In a particularly tone-deaf suggestion, OMB urged federal workers to contact their “personal attorney” to sort out the legal and financial challenges presented by the shutdown.

Unless contractors get some legal protections, some say they’ll consider moving to another employer

Contractors have fewer protections than furloughed government employees, who have historically received backpay after shutdowns end. The increasing uncertainty has forced some to question whether these roles make sense for them in the long-term.

Lawmakers including Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota are hoping to improve contractors’ safety nets. Smith is working on a bill that would guarantee backpay for contractors in the wake of the government shutdown, though congressional Republicans haven’t yet indicated they’d be interested in taking it up. “After past shutdowns, contractor employees have generally not received back pay,” Smith said in a statement. “In addition to our fight to protect federal workers who are being hurt by this shutdown, we are committed to righting this wrong for contractor employees.”

Because of the instability caused by the shutdown, the government could see one of the biggest fallouts yet: the loss of valuable talent.

The volatility in their roles has some contractors wondering whether working for the federal government is still a viable career path. Once considered one of the most dependable places to work out there, the federal government could lose contractors who aren’t particularly interested in risking the effects of another shutdown.

A State Department contractor was applying for other jobs in a coffee shop as she was talking with Vox. “It’s sort of a reality check for me,” she said. “I don’t want my next job to be with the federal government.”

“I’m going to apply for something that’s secure. Who’s to say whether it might happen again?” said Johnson.