The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

She wanted to buy her grandkids a bike for Christmas. Then came the shutdown.

Janitors lose pay when agencies close.

Lila Johnson, 71, at her home on Friday in Hagerstown, Md. Johnson was asked to use her sick days during the government shutdown. She has worked for a general cleaning services contractor at the USDA for 21 years. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Bonita Williams wanted to buy her grandchildren a bike for Christmas.

But now the janitor who sweeps floors and scrubs bathrooms at the State Department worries she won’t be able to pay her rent because of the partial government shutdown.

“My supervisor told me we won’t be getting paid,” she said, “so my bills won’t be getting paid.”

Williams, 56, is one of roughly 2,000 janitors, security guards and other federal building workers who stand to lose wages this holiday season after funding ran dry for a number of agencies, according to 32BJ SEIU, a labor union that represents 163,000 of them on the East Coast.

President Trump warned Friday that a partial shutdown “will last a very long time” unless Congress meets his demands for billions of dollars for a border wall in a stopgap spending measure.

Trump’s threat scared Williams, who works for a government contractor. If she loses a week or two of wages, she said, she’ll have to move in with her mother in North Carolina. She wouldn’t be able to cover electricity — let alone new wheels for her grandsons, ages 6 and 9.

“I wouldn’t buy any Christmas gifts knowing the government is gonna shut down,” Williams said. “You have to think about your living.”

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Hundreds of thousands of federal workers have been benched at the Commerce Department, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, NASA, the Transportation Department, Forest and National Park Services and other government operations.

Most federal employees eventually receive back-pay when their agencies temporarily close — roughly 850,000 collected compensation during the 2013 shutdown, The Post reported at the time. About 1,200 janitors, security guards and food service workers, however, did not have that kind of protection.

Cleaners like Williams often work as contractors, meaning: Another business writes their checks. And those checks halt if government agencies stop requesting their services.

“They all work for an employer who works for the government,” 32BJ SEIU vice president Jaime Contreras said. “They could lose their homes or not be able to feed their kids.”

When reached by phone Friday, an employee at R & R Janitorial Painting & Building Services, which staffs cleaners for the State Department and other agencies, declined to comment.

After the 16-day shutdown in 2013, Larry Westfall, the company’s vice president, told The Washington Post, “We were told just to bill for the services we provided. The government did not pay us, and we could not pay our workers.” (He did not immediately respond for requests for comment.)

Lila Johnson, 71, who cleans the State Department, said her supervisor told her Friday to use her sick days or vacation time to cover lost wages in the event of a shutdown.

“It’s Christmastime,” she said. “People need their money. I don’t think it’s right for us to have to use our sick days.”

Johnson said she’s the breadwinner in her Hagerstown, Md. house, where she’s helping to raise her 6 and 15-year-old grandsons.

As the risk of an extended shutdown looms, she’s worried about the rent, car and life insurance payments on top of keeping food on the table.

She blamed Trump.

“The man only cares about himself,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of member of the 32BJ SEIU.