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Federal contractors worry that a government shutdown would be a ‘nightmare’

What it looked like the last time the government shut down

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 07: Clouds fill the sky in front of the U.S. Capitol on October 7, 2013 in Washington, DC. Democrats and Republicans are still at a stalemate on funding for the federal government as the shut down goes into the seventh day. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Another government shutdown would be a “nightmare” for the federal contracting community, disrupting business, leaving employees wondering about furloughs and cutting corporate profits, according to area business leaders, who gathered in Tysons Corner Monday.

They are looking at the looming Sept. 30 deadline, by which Congress has to pass a spending plan, with a mix of angst and dread, while clinging to hope that a crisis will be averted, several executives said at a conference organized by the Professional Services Council, a trade group.

“There is a lot of concern because it’s completely out of their control,” said Alan Chvotkin, the PSC’s executive vice president and counsel.

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While much of the attention to a possible shutdown has been focused on the hundreds of thousands of federal workers who would likely be affected, there would also be a major impact on the contractors who often work alongside their government counterparts and are essential to the daily operations of the federal government.

But having weathered the shutdown in 2013, contractors are better prepared this time around, several executives said.

“That was the first time many of us had been through it,” said Dyson Richards, the executive vice president of RGS, which provides IT services and human capital to the federal government. “Having the 2013 experience helped us, so we’re a little more prepared this time.”

Still, some senior contracting executives said that the next few days and weeks could be ugly. With battles in Congress getting more tense, whether a contractor can continue to work can fluctuate from day to day. Since contracting officers are often among the first federal employees to be let go, getting information may be tough to come by, Chvotkin said.

So he warned of scenarios in which employees won’t know whether they should go to work. And he said that employees should be prepared to show up at a federal office only to be denied access.

In addition to chaotic working conditions, he and others warned that some companies might be put into a situation where they would have to furlough employees.

“There are a lot of business decisions that have to be made in a very short time,” said Lisa Ashcraft, vice president of contract operations for Abt Associates.

But John Cooney, an attorney at Venable and a former assistant solicitor general and deputy general counsel at the Office of Management and Budget, said that contractors are going to have to be able to go back to work once a shutdown ends.

“If you let that staff go, how are you going to perform the work you’re required to do when the government reopens?”

The vicissitudes of the political struggle make “the lives of contractors and contracting personnel a nightmare,” he said.

Companies should be preparing for the worst, Richards said. In 2013, many of his employees “found those projects we hadn’t been able to get to, write the reports that need to be written.”

But that only lasts so long. A long shutdown could be disastrous, and people are worried.

“People’s jobs are at stake,” he said.