Missing even one day of pay, particularly for low-wage workers, can sting.
But following its contract with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Olympus did the right thing and told workers they would be made whole. That’s not a decision all companies will make, so Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) wants Congress — which created the problem — to fix it.
In most cases, the back pay would be for one day because two of the three closure days were on the weekend.
Norton’s bill, introduced Jan. 22, the last day of the shutdown, would obligate Uncle Sam to provide back pay to workers such as Johnson in case their companies don’t. It’s a short piece of legislation, with the relevant segment saying: “If a Federal contractor that provides retail, food, custodial, or security services to the Federal Government places the employees of such contractor on unpaid leave as a result of any lapse in appropriations which begins in fiscal year 2018, the Government shall provide compensation to such employees at their standard rate of compensation for the period of such lapse.”
Norton said “low-wage contract workers deserve the same back pay given to federal employees, which is almost always granted by Congress when the government reopens.”
“Many federal contract workers earn little more than the minimum wage and receive few, if any, benefits,” she said when the bill was introduced. “While some are unionized with a little better wage, all are the lowest-paid workers in the federal government and should not be punished because Congress has failed to do its job to keep the government functioning. Congress, historically, has provided back pay to federal employees, who often work in the same buildings as these low-wage contract workers, furloughed during government shutdowns — but not low-wage contract workers. …
“Unlike many other contractors, those who employ low-wage service workers have little latitude to help make up for lost wages. Low-wage, federally contracted service workers can least afford the loss of pay during a shutdown and should not have to go to work every day while everyone else in their federal buildings likely received back pay.”
That back pay for regular federal employees was assured by legislation keeping the government funded through Feb. 8. An Office of Personnel Management memorandum issued to agencies last week said, “An employee furloughed during the lapse in appropriations must now be considered to have been in a pay status to the extent that he or she would have been in a pay status but for the lapse in appropriations.” That includes sick time and vacation.
Most higher paid contractor employees also are getting paid for the shutdown.
Alan Chvotkin, vice president and counsel for the Professional Services Council, which represents federal contracting companies, said he is not aware of any firms that furloughed their workers this month. The partial government shutdown had “no demonstrable impact on companies,” he said, “because of the short period of time.”
The day before the January closure, David J. Berteau, the council’s president and chief executive, told his members that “history says that, while civilian employees who are forced not to work will eventually be paid, contractors under the same instructions will not be.”
History was not the guide this time for many contractors because the closure was so brief. But that doesn’t apply to all.
One professional Transportation Department contractor does not expect to be paid, leaving him hot, even if not broke.
“It’s the principle of it,” said the contractor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he said he fears for his employment. Acknowledging he is in a better position than people like Johnson, the contractor added, “anyone who has to fill out a time card, loses hourly pay. … I’m angry, frustrated, beside myself.”
Anyone has a right to be angry when Congress fails in its basic duty to keep the government running. Norton said she doubts Congress will approve a proper budget, instead continuing to rely on temporary funding measures.
But is another shutdown likely? It’s a tactic that tripped up Democrats this month, and it’s unlikely to be repeated.
“It has become clear from the last shutdown that we don’t have the leverage,” Norton said of her fellow Democrats. “Nobody’s out to further harm federal employees who have taken it on the chin now for a long time.”
Johnson, an SEIU shop steward, has this message for Congress: “Keep the buildings open, because that affects a lot of people’s lives, paying rent, paying bills and other things. Keep the government from being closed down.”