Darshea Browne finally returned to patrolling the halls of the Smithsonian Natural History Museum last week, after the federal shutdown forced her and her fellow security guards off the job in December.
Browne, who lives in Washington, D.C., lost five weeks’ wages — nearly 10 percent of her annual income — and has no idea if she’ll ever see that money.
She knows that unlike other federal government employees, as a contract worker, there is no guarantee that she will be compensated for her lost pay.
“I lost about $1,500 to $2,000” in wages, Browne, 22, told ThinkProgress. “I would like to get my back pay, because I’m a hard worker just like any other federal worker.”
As of Friday, 40 Senate Democrats and 50 Democrats in the House had endorsed legislation that would give back pay to federal contract workers. So far, the bill has the backing of just one lone GOP lawmaker, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME).
“I’m hopeful and I’m optimistic” that the measure eventually will garner bipartisan support, said Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) author of the Fair Compensation for Low-Wage Contractor Employees Act, which would to provide full back pay to the lowest paid contract workers and partial remuneration to the others.
“Why should these hardworking people be forced to pay the price of the shutdown?” Smith said at a Capitol Hill press conference last week. “I’m continuing to work with our Republican colleagues in the hope of garnering their support.”
She added: “This is an important opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to join in to do something good. If you think it’s wrong that hardworking people got a pay cut because of a shutdown that had nothing to do with them, then it’s time to make your voice heard.”
Smith’s main co-sponsor of the measure in the House, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), who once worked at Boston Hotel, said she knows well the physical rigor of manual labor and the struggle of trying to make ends meet on a meager income.
“I carry with me my days as an hourly hotel worker for six years, where I had pride in my work, but was cast over in the eyes of others,” Pressley said, adding about the bill, “This is about dignity, this is about fairness, this is about justice.”
Lila Johnson, 71, a contract janitor at the Department of Agriculture for more than two decades, said the only way she was able to stay afloat during the shutdown was to dip into funds from her life insurance policy.
“The shutdown really devastated my family,” Johnson said. “For President Trump to divide us — to pay some and not pay the others, that’s not fair,” she said.
“We make it sanitary for workers to come into the building. The work is not easy. I feel it’s unfair for the government workers to get paid, and we don’t get paid? ” she said, adding that she does not anticipate receiving a full paycheck until sometime next month.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, (D-DC) another sponsor of the bill, said the federal government historically has profited by not directly hiring the custodians, security guards and cafeteria workers, but instead contracting those services out to middleman private companies.
“Why do we use contract workers? The federal government uses contract workers (for) work previously performed most often by federal workers — because they wanted to save money,” she said last week. “They save benefits sometimes … they may save wages as well,” Holmes Norton said.
But the arrangement, which is so financially beneficial to the US government, makes these workers uniquely vulnerable during federal shutdowns.
While workers who are direct federal employees typically receive back pay, contract workers never have recovered their back wages after a government shutdown.
Holmes Norton and her congressional colleagues backing the bill said that’s simply not fair. “We have no right to save money by depriving employees who are kept from going to work” their back pay, she said.
Even as life for federal workers slowly returns to normal, financial hardship lingers after weeks without pay. And another shutdown could be around the corner, as congressional negotiators race to beat a February 15 deadline for a deal on funding for border security.
President Donald Trump told reporters on Friday that “there’s a good chance” that he will declare a national emergency to secure funding to construct a border wall, and there is speculation that such a declaration could even come during Tuesday’s State of the Union address.
Failing an agreement by the congressional conference committee, Trump has threatened that he could provoke another shutdown — an outcome too awful for many federal workers to even contemplate, as they struggle to recover from the last federal closure.
Browne says she already lives on a financial knife’s edge after the federal shutdown forced her to drain her bank account of her meager savings.
“I live alone. I pay my bills by myself,” she told ThinkProgress. “I’m trying to keep my electric on and everything. Making sure there’s food in the house. I’m just trying to keep everything together.”