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The lowest-paid federal workers aren’t getting shutdown pay. How will they pay the rent?

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Lawmakers, with the support of unions, propose bill pushing to recoup lost wages after shutdown

Marie Owens Powell holds a placard stating ‘Pay us for our work’ while demonstrating with Philadelphia Airport TSA and airport workers outside the Philadelphia International Airport on January 25, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. While many federal workers will now receive backpay, the many contractors employed by the federal government will not.
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The recent end of the record-breaking 35-day federal shutdown has allowed Congress and federal workers to catch their breath.

But not every member of the federal workforce has been made whole by the agreement to temporarily reopen the government. While the roughly 800,000 formerly furloughed full-time federal workers will receive much-needed back pay, the contract workforce, which New York University public service professor Paul Light estimates to include more than 4 million workers nationwide, will currently not be reimbursed for missed paychecks in January. Many laborers, who make between $450 and $650 weekly, live paycheck to paycheck.

“We think contract employees who were similarly employed should be treated in an equitable manner,” said Alan L. Chvotkin, executive vice president and counsel of the Professional Services Council, a trade group representing federal contract workers. “They were denied pay for the work they were hired to do.”

Seeking fair pay for federal workers

This afternoon, a coalition of lawmakers and members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) held a press conference to announce a concerted push for contractor back pay. The Fair Compensation for Low-Wage Contractor Employees Act, supported by a number of Democrats in the House and Senate, would provide up to $600 per paycheck in back pay for furloughed federal contracted employees, including janitorial, food and security workers, tapping into money already allocated to pay workers in January,

Democratic Sen. Tina Smith, a Senate sponsor of the bill who has recruited nearly 70 Congressional sponsors, said during a press conference today, flanked by contractors, that all federal workers deserve back pay.

“Why should these hardworking people be forced to pay for the price of the shutdown themselves?” she says.

Julie Blust, a spokesperson for SEIU, said that the union has started a huge push to convince Congress to pass legislation to provide back pay for federal workers. According to data from Zillow, federal employees who own homes make roughly $249 million in mortgage payments each month.

“Rent and mortgages have been a big issue,” Blust told Curbed in an email. “The majority of our members are struggling to afford next month’s payment.”

With the president entertaining the option of another shutdown if his demand for a wall is not met, the financial hardships suffered by this vast subset of workers, from computer specialists and consultants to janitors and security guards, may go beyond the end of the month, when many will have to dip into savings or struggle to pay the rent or make a mortgage payment.

“A true focus on America would mean support for the hard-working men and women who keep our government safe, clean and running every day, while supporting their own families and communities across the country,” said Jaime Contreras, a vice president of SEIU’s 32BJ chapter, which represents more than 17,000 members in the Washington, D.C., metro area and Baltimore, Maryland.

Continued fallout from shutdown politics

While Congressional leaders and the White House attempt to move forward and reach an agreement on border security, federal workers remain impacted by this month’s unprecedented shutdown. The Washington Post has estimated that there are 10,000 companies that have contracts with the government that have suffered due to missed payments or temporary work stoppages. In addition, 36,000 federal workers filed for unemployment last month, and many turned to part-time, gig economy opportunities such as driving for Uber or renting out their homes using Airbnb. Some have said it’ll take months to recover.

Many have already visited food banks, applied for loans, or, in the case of Smithsonian security guard Faye Smith, set up GoFundMe accounts to make ends meet. Tamela Worthen, a 55-year-old security guard who works at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, told Vox she was concerned that, after a month without pay, she’ll miss a mortgage payment, and is afraid of losing her house.

Audrey Murray-Wright, a single mother who works for the Smithsonian and a contractor who services the State Department, started crying during her testimony for members of the Senate on January 16. She paid for a house herself, but now has no idea how she’ll make her mortgage payment.

“I’m a middle-aged woman,” she said, “I need my jobs to take care of my family. I’m not asking anybody for anything. That’s why I work two jobs every day. I leave my house in the dark, I come back in the dark. It’s a deep burden on me. I lost my husband of 27 years.”

Tamela Worthen, a 55-year-old security guard who works at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, told Vox she was afraid that, after a month without pay, she’ll miss a mortgage payment, and is afraid of losing her house. Many have said it’ll take months to recover.

“Contracted workers are still in limbo,” Héctor Figueroa, president of SEIU 32BJ, told the Washington Post. “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.”

Chvotkin says many of the firms that provide contractors for the government used creative staffing measures throughout January to try to help their workers avoid the brunt of the shutdown’s impact. Some employees were transferred to jobs for other clients unaffected by the shutdown. Others were reassigned to training courses. At one company, which Chvotkin wouldn’t name, executives donated portions of their paychecks to make another pay cycle. But that was only a Band-Aid for the missing pay.

“I don’t want to minimize that there are have and have nots,” he says. “Everybody is being affected in various ways.”

The prospect of more uncertainty, and missed pay, is a continuing source of anxiety. Late last week, many companies had approached a significant inflection point in terms of cash flow, according to the Professional Service Council’s Chvotkin. If the shutdown had lasted another week, many would have had serious issues holding on to employees and continuing to pay. Companies and their employees fear the unknown, and Donald Trump’s threat of another shutdown makes it unclear how long it’ll last.

“While there were smiles when the government reopened, people are nervous,” he says. “There was a recognition that, like this last shutdown, the next one will be out of their control.”