Low-wage workers continue to feel the sting of the federal shutdown, worry about holidays


Pablo Lazaro, 43, who works at the Smithsonian Castle and did not get paid during the government shutdown, has dinner with his family in their Columbia Heights home. He is among the hundreds of contract workers who are not eligible for back pay and are worried about the holidays and paying bills. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
November 13, 2013

Pablo Lazaro’s family has cut out its weekly dinner outings after Sunday Mass and other extras. But he’s looking for a part-time job to supplement his wages as a cook. And the family struggled to come up with the money for this month’s mortgage payment.

The District family has been in a financial crisis since last month’s 16-day federal government shutdown.

“Those three weeks of work lost are $1,600 that we don’t have now,” said Lazaro, who worked only six days in October at the Smithsonian Castle, where he cooks for and serves food to museum employees.

Without that income, the Lazaros don’t have enough money to cover their $1,200 mortgage, due Friday, the $200 condo fee and utilities.

Congress’s fiscal standoff came as a big hit for contract workers like Lazaro who labor as janitors, security guards and food-service workers and in similar positions at federal buildings. The deal reached by Congress to end the shutdown included back pay for federal employees but not the thousands of contract workers who help keep the government running.

Although some contractors in skilled positions were not seriously affected because they have annual contracts or they were able to use paid leave during the closure, most service workers — who make some of the lowest wages paid for government work — had no such protection, labor leaders and elected officials said.

Now some members of Congress are trying to find a way to help those employees. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Rep. Robert A. Brady (D-Pa.) are considering legislation to provide back pay to federally contracted retail, food, custodial and security workers affected by the shutdown.

Norton introduced a bill Thursday to extend back pay to those workers. The bill would amend a continuing budget resolution and would apply to all three branches of the federal government. Taxpayers already are picking up the tab for $2 billion in back pay for federal employees, according to a report by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

“These are workers in the shadows, and yet, in the face of the Congress and of the federal government . . . they are the ones who could least afford an extended layoff,” Norton said. “The federal government could make these workers whole, too, and I think they should.”

Invisible workforce

Many contract workers said their hours were cut so severely during the shutdown that they were left struggling to pay bills and are shelving holiday plans. They also fear another shutdown if Congress fails to settle on a spending plan by Jan. 15, when the current stopgap measure expires. Many of these workers make the District’s minimum wage of $8.25 an hour. Others — mostly those represented by labor unions — make $14 to $21 an hour.

In some ways, the budget standoff’s impact on these workers went unnoticed because they represent a relatively small part of the labor force doing government work, and their struggles may be lost in national statistics, some experts said.

“Sometimes these lower-income folks get swamped by the data,” said Keith Hall, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and former director of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The effect on their budgets can be expected to continue this month and into the holidays, he said. “They will have to reduce their spending for a while.”

The Washington region, home to the largest concentration of federal workers and contractors in the nation, was hit especially hard by the 16-day shutdown, which followed sequestration cuts this year, another blow to the region’s economy.

Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, which represents thousands of janitorial workers and security guards in the Washington region, estimates that about 700 members were out of work during the shutdown. UNITE HERE Local 23, another union, said about 500 members — food-service workers — were affected.

“If the direct government employees got paid, the contracted-out federal workers shouldn’t be seen as collateral damage. They should also get paid,” said Jaime Contreras, capital area director of Local 32BJ. “All these people have bills to pay. They have mortgages. They have to put food on the table. They have to make ends meet, and they were without a paycheck for two weeks.”

Larry Westfall, vice president of R&R Janitorial Painting & Building Services, said that about 100 of his employees who work at the Labor and Justice departments were affected by the shutdown and that the company lost about $80,000.

“We were told just to bill for the services we provided,” Westfall said. “The government did not pay us, and we could not pay our workers.”

The D.C.-based company, which has about 300 employees, gave its workers the option of using paid leave during the shutdown, but most did not have any left for the year, Westfall said. He said the company couldn’t afford to pay $100,000 out-of-pocket to make up the lost wages for its employees, many of whom live paycheck to paycheck.

Westfall said small vendors that supply government contractors also suffered during the shutdown.“It affects a lot of people,” he said. “We are at the government’s mercy. It is not nice.”

Brady is the ranking Democrat on the Committee on House Administration, whose responsibilities include oversight of the Library of Congress, the House Library, the U.S. Botanic Garden and the Smithsonian Institution. The shutdown affected many service workers at those institutions, and Brady has been looking at “the depth of the problem,” said Stanley V. White, his chief of staff.

These workers “are hourly employees . . . who may or may not have been paid through no fault of their own or their employer,” White said. “They were really victims in all this.”

White said Brady is looking at a legislative fix, including providing the funds or some sort of tax credit to affected employers and coming up with a mechanism to help these workers in the event of a future shutdown. “We are gaming that out right now.”

Piling on

Venorica Tucker, a Prince George’s County resident who has been working as a banquet server in the House for 25 years, said her hours were already cut because sequestration had reduced the number of events held by Congress. Then the shutdown crimped her budget even more, she said.

“I had to pay the mortgage because I can’t be on the street. But will I have the $300 to pay the electric bill?” she said. “I’ve got to pay the cellphone and the gas and buy the groceries.”

Tucker, 65, who cares for a son with a disability and two grandchildren, said she worked only a week last month and was short $3,000 in monthly earnings. She lost her health insurance because she didn’t work enough hours and had to resort to savings set aside for the holidays to pay the monthly bills.

“I am afraid of very bad endings for some of us — utilities turned off, evictions and possibly mental health issues,” said Tucker, a shop steward with Local 23. “We have suffered tremendously this year.”

Lazaro’s job in a federal building had given the family a sense of security, he said one recent afternoon as he flipped through bills and his wife, Angela, prepared to serve a dinner of chorizo, beans and tortillas.

A daughter, Yanel, 10, sat at the dining table working on math problems, and Mariela, 2, waited for dinner.

“When the politicians closed the government, they didn’t think about the impact it would have on our families,” said Lazaro, 43, who makes $16 an hour and is the sole provider for his family of four. “We depend on these salaries to live. We have children to support and bills to pay.”

The shutdown came at a particularly bad time, he said. The family had made an emergency trip to Mexico in August to visit his ailing parents, and the travel expenses had exhausted its savings. Now he is looking for a part-time job and hoping to save enough in case another shutdown occurs, he said.

The couple discussed which bills they would be able to pay this month. The mortgage check was ready to be sent out on payday, Friday. The utility bills would have to wait.

Luz Lazo writes about transportation and development. She has recently written about the challenges of bus commuting, Metro’s dark stations, and the impact of sequestration on air travel.
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