government shutdown

Janitors, Cooks, and Other Government Contractors Are Still Fighting for Back Pay

Furloughed federal workers will receive back pay, but contractors will not. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The government is up and running again, and the 800,000 federal employees who went unpaid for more than a month will soon be made whole. The same cannot be said for the hundreds of thousands of contractors who clean toilets, cook meals, and perform other grueling tasks for the federal government.

There’s an effort to change that though. Nearly two weeks ago, a handful of Democratic senators put forward a bill to guarantee back pay to contractors, who are paid by third-party companies. Those companies aren’t getting paid by the government during the shutdown and so the people who work for them are also going unpaid.

The Democratic legislation calls for federal agencies to reimburse contractors for providing back pay to janitors, cooks, security guards, and others who were out of work during the shutdown. If any workers used sick days or leave during the shutdown, contractors would also be compensated for restoring those days for employees.

“This bill is about helping a group of people who are often invisible — people who work in the cafeterias, who clean offices after everyone else goes home, security guards who keep our buildings safe overnight,” Minnesota senator Tina Smith said in a statement earlier this month. She also said providing this money to contractors should be a no-brainer since it’s already been allocated to federal agencies.

But the bill, which has more than 20 Democratic co-sponsors, has yet to attract any support from Republican lawmakers, Vox reports. There’s hope that will change:

“I don’t know of any Republican opposition to this,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (MD), one of the bill’s sponsors told Vox, adding that he hopes the legislation could be added to any final spending package that funds the government. In the House, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (MA) has also introduced a companion bill.

It’s unclear how many contractors went without pay during the shutdown. New York University professor Paul Light says as many as 580,000 workers could have been affected by the shutdown. Ohio senator Sherrod Brown, one of the co-sponsors of the Democratic legislation, tweeted that there are more than a million contractors who “deserve back pay.”

They don’t just deserve it; they need it. Especially since their first post-shutdown paycheck can still be weeks away. That’s the case for employees of Unispec Enterprises, which provides personnel services to the government, the Washington Post reported over the weekend:

And because Unispec cannot pay its employees until it has billed the government and received payment for their work, it will be another four full weeks, Feb. 28, before Morgan is eligible to receive a complete paycheck, McClure said.

The Trump administration, meanwhile, has shown little interest in securing back pay for contractors. Asked Monday whether the White House supports such an effort, National Economic Council director Larry Kudlow said, “I’m not sure. I’m not an expert on that.”

Government Contractors Are Fighting for Shutdown Back Pay