Maine Sen. Susan Collins is the first — and so far only — Republican senator to sign on to a bill guaranteeing back pay for federal contractors in the wake of the 35-day government shutdown. The bill would ensure that contractors, who typically haven’t received back pay in the past, also get paychecks for the time they missed as a result of the stalemate.
Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN), who is leading the legislation, has now gained support for the bill from more than 35 Democrats, but no Republicans had officially backed up the bill until this point, according to a spokesperson for Smith.
Smith and her colleagues say they are going to keep reaching across the aisle, with the hopes that Collins’s support could very well open the door for others to join her.
“I don’t know of any Republican opposition to this,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), a bill co-sponsor, told Vox. Van Hollen and Smith are aiming for the legislation to be included in any final spending package that funds the government before the February 15 deadline. In the House, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) has also introduced a companion bill.
Many federal contractors, unlike other government employees, are not expected to get back pay for the paychecks they missed out on during the multi-week shutdown. Because they work for third-party companies that the government pays for their services, contractors don’t get paid when these services aren’t used. During past shutdowns, contractors have been forced to simply chalk up this gap in pay as a loss.
As many as 580,000 contractors, including cafeteria workers, security guards, and IT consultants, could be affected by the shutdown in this way, according to NYU public service professor Paul Light. (Depending on the company they work for, some contractors may have received their pay uninterrupted during the shutdown.)
For those who did see breaks in their wages, it’s a gaping hole they’re being asked to recover from with little recourse. “Thirty-five days is a historically long shutdown,” says Van Hollen. “The economic pain and damage was more severe [than past ones.] There are a lot of people who were left out in the cold for no fault of their own.”
Contractors have told Vox that they struggled with bills for everything from medication to baby formula to child care during the shutdown. As the Washington Post reported, some contractors even saw their health insurance coverage put on pause because their employers weren’t able to cover worker premiums.
While the shutdown is now over, its effects are expected to have an outsize impact on many workers for months to come.
What the Senate bill would do
The Senate bill, which has been dubbed the Fair Compensation for Low-Wage Contractor Employees Act, would require federal agencies to work directly with companies that contract to them in order to provide back pay for the employees caught up in the shutdown.
As Smith has explained, 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.”
The bill is especially focused on providing full back pay for low-wage individuals, but would also offer some compensation for higher-income earners, according to Smith’s spokesperson. Agencies could provide workers up to $965 per week in back pay if the bill passes.
The legislation would also create a special account to pay out these funds, the senator said, noting that it expands a mechanism that already exists for reimbursing contractors for shutdown costs.
Agencies could actually pay contractors without any legislation
While legislation could help codify the practice of repaying federal contractors after a shutdown, agencies could actually directly pay out these contracts without any legislation at all, according to a union representative.
“The public should be aware that agencies do in fact have the ability to immediately and single-handedly provide workers back pay, without forcing members of Congress into the long and uphill battle of passing legislation,” said Jaime Contreras, a vice president of 32BJ SEIU, a union representing building services workers. “In this way, federal agencies are holding a lifeline to rescue workers who are drowning in bills through no fault of their own. Agencies must fulfill their moral and financial obligation to repay workers for a shutdown these men and women had nothing to do with.”
The Office of Management and Budget could direct agencies to examine their budgets and determine how much it would cost to cover contractor wages that were not paid out during the shutdown, the union representative added.
Prior to the end of the shutdown, House and Senate Democrats had urged OMB to do just that.
“Government contracts typically have provisions to modify the terms of the contract,” they wrote. “Federal contracting officers should use these provisions to work with contractors to provide back pay for employees who lost wages as a result of the government shutdown.”
OMB did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and Van Hollen said lawmakers haven’t heard back from the agency.
As things stand right now, both the administration and Congress are leaving contractors in the lurch.