correction: An earlier version of this column misidentified a Smithsonian contract worker who had been furloughed during the government shutdown. Her name is Tamela Worthen. This version has been updated.
Tina Smith, a Democrat, represents Minnesota in the U.S. Senate. Ayanna Pressley, a Democrat, represents Massachusetts in the U.S. House.
At a recent meeting held in the basement of the Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, men and women crowded around a table to address lawmakers. They were custodians, maintenance workers, security guards. Some worked more than one of these jobs to make ends meet. But like hundreds of thousands of Americans who go to work every day to help make our federal government function, they had been forced to go without pay because of the shutdown.
One of them was Tamela Worthen, a security guard at the Smithsonian Institution. Tamela said she was worried she would fall behind on her mortgage and car payments, ruining the good credit she’d worked so long and so hard to build. And as she spoke, beads of sweat rolled down her face. Was she nervous about speaking in front of a crowd? No. As Tamela explained, she’s diabetic and has high blood pressure. Without her regular paycheck, she hadn’t been able to afford the co-pay for a doctor’s appointment to have her blood tested and her prescription renewed. So she was going without her medicine.
There’s no doubt that the five-week partial government shutdown was wasteful, shortsighted and completely unnecessary. Nothing was accomplished. Nothing was gained. And at Tuesday’s State of the Union address, it was clear that Washington has already moved on to the next fight. But for thousands of people like Tamela, the shutdown isn’t over.
Here’s why: In the coming days and weeks, 800,000 federal employees who lost their paychecks during the shutdown will be receiving back pay for the time they were furloughed. That back pay won’t make up for what they’ve gone through over those difficult weeks of uncertainty, of course. Democrats and Republicans alike understand that making these workers whole is critical.
But Tamela isn’t a federal employee. She works for one of the many companies — not just in the District but around the country — that receive contracts from the federal government. Employees of these contractors make up the backbone of our federal workforce, but roughly half a million of these men and women had their work affected by the shutdown. Many are low-wage service employees, sweeping the floors of museums, serving food in cafeterias or providing security at federal buildings. And, for countless men and women in these jobs, even one missed paycheck was enough to threaten their ability to make rent, pay utility bills and put food on the table.
Unlike federal employees, people who work for federal contractors have never received back pay in the wake of a government shutdown. After being furloughed, laid off or forced to reduce their work hours due to a crisis not of their making, they have no recourse to be made whole again.
That’s wrong. The federal government relies on these working men and women. And the failure on the part of politicians in Washington to do their jobs shouldn’t rob people of the financial security they’ve earned.
That’s why we’re teaming up on legislation that would correct this injustice by making sure that low-wage employees of federal contractors are fully compensated for the pay they lost — and, in some cases, the annual leave they were forced to use — during the shutdown.
This shouldn’t be controversial. Federal agencies have already budgeted the money they would have used to pay these contractors had the shutdown not happened. And there’s already a mechanism in place to help contractors get reimbursed for other costs incurred during the shutdown. The cure for this injustice is within our reach — if we have the will to act.
Today, these thousands of low-wage workers are back on the job, doing the work that keeps our government operating. But many are still struggling to make up for those lost paychecks. Some have been forced to take on extra jobs. Others are weighing difficult decisions about which bills to put off paying, or even worrying about whether they’ll be able to stay in their homes.
Men and women like Tamela were made into pawns during the shutdown, and we refuse to let them be overlooked now that the shutdown has ended. There was no good reason for the shutdown in the first place, and there is no excuse for allowing the pain it caused to linger for these working Americans and their families.
Our legislation is building bipartisan support, with support from Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) — the first of what we hope will be many Republican co-sponsors. There shouldn’t be anything partisan about this — it is a simple question of common sense and fairness. We hope that, even if those qualities are sometimes in short supply in Washington, our fellow Americans will help us urge our colleagues on Capitol Hill to do the right thing and help us pass this legislation.