The American Prospect: Low-Wage Federal Contract Employees Get Stiffed, Again

December 18, 2019
In The News

As the year comes to a close, House Democrats, at the direction of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have found themselves in a giving spirit. Not only have they blessed passage for Donald Trump’s long-promised renegotiation of NAFTA, and a record $738 billion defense authorization bill that excised provisions aimed at ending U.S. involvement in the Yemen conflict and limiting President Donald Trump’s war powers (along with creating a sixth branch of the military, the Space Force), they’ve followed that up with a nearly $1.4 trillion appropriations bill that dribbles out $1.375 billion in funding for the border wall (while leaving the president’s ability to redirect government funds untouched, which means the real number could easily be far higher) and snuck in a series of corporate-friendly tax and regulatory provisions.

In short, it’s a holiday bounty for the forces that run Washington.

To speak generously of that legislative flurry, the passage of a bill to fund the government for 2020 is a success at least insofar as it averts a rerun of last year’s shutdown. When last year’s spending bill came up for deliberation, Trump went to war over the funding allocated for the wall, plunging the federal government into a record 35-day partial work stoppage.

But the one thing House Democrats couldn’t come up with in their trillion-plus package was back pay for federal contractors who were furloughed during the shutdown last year, but weren’t eligible for the payments that other federal employees received once the shutdown crisis ended. That means that thousands of janitors, security guards, and other largely low-wage workers at places like the Smithsonian went over a month without a paycheck, only to be denied recompense both in last year’s appropriations bill, and again in this year’s.

“Last shutdown our members went 35 days without pay and still haven’t gotten paid back for that,” said Jaime Contreras, vice president of the 32BJ chapter of the Service Employees International Union, which encompasses the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore areas. “They’re still struggling to pay the bills they got backed up on.”

Via subcontracting, the federal government is one of the largest employers of low-wage workers in the country. According to an estimate by Good Jobs Nation, the feds fund 4.5 million contractor jobs that pay less than $15 an hour.

And while there were efforts made last January to extend back-pay provisions beyond just direct federal employees, contractors were ultimately hung out to dry. In the 32BJ chapter of the SEIU alone, 600 workers, many of whom live paycheck to paycheck, saw no compensation after a work stoppage of five weeks.

For many, this isn’t the first time they’ve been plunged into precarity by the whims of Washington. In 2013, when the government closed for 16 days, federal workers were covered by retroactive back-pay provisions, but low-wage contractors were not. Because of the length of 2019’s shutdown, not only were multiple paychecks forfeited by workers, but eligibility for benefits was threatened as well. For some, going over 30 days without working meant a loss of health insurance coverage, which could take another month for reinstatement.

For many, too, it meant draining savings accounts and paying bills on credit that have merely been deferred to later dates. And because of the unknown duration of something like a shutdown, the prospect of finding a new job can be basically impossible, while unemployment benefits can take up to three weeks to kick in.

Based on this year’s funding bill, which extends until next September, another work stoppage will be unlikely in the near future. But the effects of January’s shutdown linger. For workers like Michelle Serrano, who’s spent the last five and a half years as a security officer at the Smithsonian in New York, the shutdown meant dipping deeply into savings. It also meant that her college-aged daughter, in her first year in school, was forced to take the semester off, after Serrano was unable to make the subsequent tuition payment. “For six months I was really cutting back. On food, buying stuff for myself or my daughter. I’m scared every day [of another shutdown],” she told me. “At times I do feel maybe I should go into some other field. But I love security and I love Smithsonian; it’s not their fault.”

Procuring the necessary funding to provision back pay for these workers in the event of subsequent shutdowns would hardly constitute a Herculean political feat. Compared to the money provisioned for the border wall, or the gargantuan defense budget, that money would barely even register as a blip on the radar. One estimate pegged the cost to contractors at $1.5 billion a week, or $7.5 billion in total. That’s one-half of one percent of the discretionary budget.

Indeed, there are bills under consideration that would accomplish that: Representative Ayanna Pressley has introduced the Fair Compensation for Low-Wage Contractor Employees Act, which would pay back lost wages to federal contractors. Pressley’s bill, which per her office’s estimation would cover some 580,000 workers, passed in the House in June, but has predictably stalled in the Senate ever since. Meanwhile, Senator Tina Smith has championed a similar proposal in the Senate. And yet, nothing has passed into law.

The moment where Democrats could have gotten this done for thousands of low-wage workers was in the must-pass government funding bill. Yet it stayed on the doorstep while tax cuts for medical-device companies and insurers and long-sought boosts for financial providers of annuity products for retirement got waved through.

“Until the last decade, the shutdown was really not in the cards in terms of a bargaining chip, using federal contract workers as pawns in the massive political chess game,” said Contreras. “These people have some of the lowest-paid jobs in the government and are being screwed of no fault of their own by this administration.” Of course, stiffing contractors is hardly out of character for Trump, who built a reputation in the private sector for exactly that. But, for the second year in a row, those contractors are going forward without protections, working for an increasingly unreliable federal government.

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