government shutdown

Republicans May Block Efforts to Get Shutdown Back-Pay to Federal Contractors

People protest the government shutdown outside a federal government building in New York, on January 15, 2019. Photo: Wang Ying/Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images

President Trump won’t sign a spending package that includes back pay for federal subcontractors, Republicans told members of the press on Wednesday afternoon.

Federal workers are guaranteed back pay after a government shutdown. However, contractors aren’t — a problem Democratic legislators had hoped to rectify. Senator Tina Smith, a Democrat from Minnesota, introduced a bill that would have granted back pay to low-wage contractors affected by the shutdown; Democrats have tried to attach it to a spending package that would avert a second government shutdown on Friday.

As the Federal Times explained, during shutdowns companies that hold federal contracts “can pay workers out of company savings, use vacation day donation pools or not pay some of their employees at all for the shutdown period.” During last month’s rollout, Smith noted that federal agencies had already budgeted to pay companies during the shutdown; her bill would direct agencies to pay out that money, which would then go toward workers’ missing wages.

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

The bill does have limitations: It is designed specifically to assist low-wage contractors, and “cap[s] payments at $965 per worker per week, so it would make workers whole only if they earn less than $50,000 annually,” HuffPost reported.

That would still be a major help to many contractors, who faced heavy burdens as the shutdown dragged on. Workers missed rent, fell behind on bills, and rationed medicine — and they’ve only had three weeks to pull themselves out of this financial morass. A second shutdown would cause devastation. Smith’s back-pay proposal, though, has garnered opposition not just from Trump but from members of his party. A source told Vox on Wednesday that the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is responsible for some of the pushback, though McConnell’s spokesperson disputed that allegation.

Trump, of course, is no stranger to stiffing contractors. USA Today reported in 2016 that Trump, his companies, and properties were subject to 200 mechanic’s liens, filed by contractors and workers who said they hadn’t been paid for their work:

On just one project, Trump’s Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, records released by the New Jersey Casino Control Commission in 1990 show that at least 253 subcontractors weren’t paid in full or on time, including workers who installed walls, chandeliers and plumbing.

When Trump ran on his business credentials, perhaps this is what he had in mind. Unions, meanwhile, have trained a spotlight on the issue of contractor pay. On February 16, Unite Here, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA will protest at airports in major cities even if legislators manage to avoid another shutdown. On a joint website, the coalition cites contractor back-pay as a motivation for the protests. “A true general strike would take months of planning. But we cannot allow that to stop us from taking action now. We must do what we can immediately,” they write.

GOP May Block Efforts to Get Back Pay to Federal Contractors