clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A Democratic senator wants to protect federal contractors — the people most screwed over by the shutdown

A new bill from Sen. Tina Smith would guarantee them back pay.

Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota is spearheading a bill to guarantee government contractors back pay.
Zach Gibson/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.

Federal contractors are among the workers hardest hit by the partial government shutdown: Not only are many not getting paid during it, they also won’t receive any back pay after the shutdown ends. Furloughed federal employees, meanwhile, are guaranteed back pay once the government is reopened — an assurance President Trump signed into law this week.

Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) wants to fix this.

On Wednesday, Smith introduced legislation along with fellow Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown (OH), Chris Van Hollen (MD), Ben Cardin (MD), Mark Warner (VA), and Tim Kaine (VA), to require federal agencies to work directly with companies that contract to them to provide back pay for the employees caught up in the shutdown. Because of the way the system currently works, contractors are paid directly by companies that can’t bill the government for services when it’s shut down. Since these companies aren’t getting paid, they, in turn, aren’t able to pay their workers.

Smith says federal agencies have already allocated money in their budgets to cover contractor costs that have not been doled out because of the shutdown. Her bill would simply ask these agencies to pay out what they would have spent anyway.

“If you think about it, they’re paying people for work they would have done but for the shutdown,” Smith said. “In many cases, that money was already budgeted; it just hasn’t been spent.”

Smith’s bill would create a special account in order to pay out these funds, she says, noting that the legislation expands a mechanism that already exists for reimbursing contractors for shutdown costs. It would give contractors up to $50,000 in back pay, with the aim of specifically addressing the shutdown’s effects on low-wage workers.

“In the past, [low-wage federal contractors] have never been reimbursed for the wages that they lost because of a federal shutdown,” Smith said. “That is wrong.” She added that they are still working to build support for the legislation among Republicans.

Approximately 500,000 government contractors work for agencies affected by the government shutdown, according to New York University public service professor Paul Light — though it’s unclear exactly how many of those are affected by this shutdown so far. His research has previously found that contractors make up about 40 percent of government workers overall, a pool that has grown significantly over the past two decades or so. They include security guards, cafeteria workers, developers, and researchers.

The fallout of the shutdown has been devastating for contractors, many of whom are scrambling to make up for the gap in pay by applying for unemployment benefits, working for Uber and Lyft, or finding other part-time gigs. Many say the shutdown has put their ability to afford housing bills, medications, and even food for their families at risk.

“Most live paycheck to paycheck; that’s not unusual. Missing a paycheck is a big deal,” said Sen. Cardin during a roundtable with a group of contractors on Wednesday. According to a 2017 survey from CareerBuilder, that’s in line with the majority of Americans, nearly 80 percent of whom say they live paycheck to paycheck.

As part of the roundtable, contractors explained their concerns about the shutdown and their frustration with an abstract political fight that’s now taken their livelihoods hostage. “All we want to do is work and provide for our family. Is that so hard?” one asked.