Julia Quintanilla, who has cleaned federal office buildings in Washington for 27 years, cashed in the last of her sick days during the shutdown to keep some income flowing. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

FURLOUGHED FEDERAL employees returned to their jobs Monday after the end of the longest government shutdown in history. But life was not completely back to normal. They, along with workers who had been required to work without pay, awaited payment of back pay so they could finally take care of basic needs. Even less fortunate, though, were federal contract workers, who lost income during the partial 35-day government shutdown and who fear never being able to recover financially because they don’t get back pay.

“We are human, too, and we work just as hard as anybody in the federal government,” said Bonita Williams, a contract custodian for the State Department. “I feel as though we were taken for a joke,” said Loniece Hamilton, who works security at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Not only must these workers now dig themselves out of a financial hole not of their own making, but they also face the threat of another shutdown if a spending agreement isn’t reached by Feb. 15. As Congress works on a deal to prevent another needless and destructive shutdown, part of the formula should be how to help the thousands of federal contract workers who have been overlooked.

Reimbursing contract workers has never been done, so it is more complicated than providing back pay to furloughed federal employees. One issue is the different ways government agencies contract with outside companies. But legislation addressing the problem has been introduced in both the House and Senate. A bill backed by a group of Democratic senators, including Tina Smith (Minn.) and Chris Van Hollen (Md.), would require federal agencies to use the broad authority they have over contracts to work directly with companies to provide back pay, capped at $965 per week.

The proposal and a bipartisan House bill introduced this week are premised on the logic that these federal agencies have already allocated money in their budgets to cover contractor costs that were not expended because of the shutdown. The bills would simply ask agencies to pay out budgeted money they would have spent if not for the shutdown.

The unprecedented length of the shutdown caused real hardship for people, many of them low-wage earners who could least afford it. Ms. Smith called them the “people who are often invisible — people who work in the cafeterias, who clean offices after everyone else goes home, security guards who keep our buildings safe overnight.” Congress needs to undo the damage done to these workers.