At some point, the partial federal government shutdown — which on Saturday officially became the longest on record in the United States — will come to an end. Workers will get weeks of back pay owed to them, and temporary financial hardships will be lifted. That’s true, at least, for most government employees.
But long after government paychecks start being reissued, thousands of contract workers across the United States will continue to struggle to regain a solid financial footing — and may be unable to do so for years.
Contract workers, including security guards, food service workers, and janitors working at federal facilities, often earn barely enough to get by. They are uniquely vulnerable to losing even one day’s pay, as the partial government shutdown stretched into a record 22nd day.
The partial closure of the federal government began on December 22, after President Trump refused to back down from his $5.7 billion demand from Congressional Democrats to build a vanity wall on the US-Mexico border.
Some 800,000 federal workers have been furloughed or are working without pay. Hardest hit, however, have been contract workers. They might work for decades cleaning the buildings of the Commerce Department or patroling the corridors of the Air and Space Museum, but contract workers are technically employees of middleman companies that placed a winning low bid to provide these services to the federal government.
Lila Johnson, 71, has worked as a janitor at the US Department of Agriculture for more than 20 years. Three contracting companies have come and gone in that time, but she has continued to clean the building’s bathroom and mop its floors. She says the shutdown has upended her already financially precarious world.
“My car note is already two months behind. Now I have to wonder how I’m going to pay next month’s rent,” she told ThinkProgress. “I talked to my creditors. I’m pleased to say that they’re working with me. They know that I’ve never been behind before.”
Johnson had minor surgery just before the shutdown and doesn’t get paid sick days, so she received a smaller than usual pay on Friday. She expects to receive no money at all on February 15, her next “payday” after not having worked since the start of the year.
“I’ll have to work almost a month before I get a check,” said Johnson, who lives in the city of Hagerstown, Maryland outside Washington, D.C.
“I have two great-grands that I’m raising. I have to take care of them. Pay food and rent. It really costs to raise kids these days and times,” she said. She’s gotten some financial assistance from friends to help tide her over but says “I can’t depend on that. I need to work.”
It’s the kind of hardship story Julie Karant hears all the time.
Karant works at the Service International Employees Union (SEIU) as a spokesperson for the 32BJ the local unit that covers some 2,000 janitorial staff, food service workers and security guards in the Washington, DC area. Along with Johnson and hundreds of other protesters, Karant attended a rally held at the White House this week to call for an end to the shutdown.
“Our members are predominantly, if not exclusively, African American and Latino. They don’t necessarily have health care benefits or pension benefits and most of them have multiple jobs,” Karant told ThinkProgress. “They are part and full time. Sometimes even the full time workers have to work a second job.”
“Thanks to good union contracts they don’t make poverty wages, (but) they make a wage that is just enough to get by,” she said.
Some contract workers are making ends meet with assistance from food pantries and church donations. The union is also providing help to some members filling out forms to receive unemployment insurance to help tide them over.
“They have just enough to pay various bills, but not extra. When they do miss a single paycheck it makes all the difference in the world…. It does mean they’re going to have to choose between prescription drugs and food and getting electricity shut off,” Karant said.
“They’re very worried, they’re very anxious and stressed out,” she continued.
“They’re angry at the government because they watch the news like everyone else and know that it’s absolutely unimaginable that Trump is putting so many people out of work for a wall that nobody wants, that’s purely driven by racism and misinformation and complete lies about immigrants — especially since these men and women if they’re not immigrants themselves, they work side by side with immigrants.”
Many workers who are directly paid by the government missed a paycheck for the first time on Friday — or they received one with zeroes where a dollar amount should have been.
Contract workers are paid on different schedule — some weekly, some bi-weekly. Even those who received a paycheck this week say they earn relatively little, so the money gets spent quickly on essentials like food, shelter and daycare.
And while there’s no good time to lose a paycheck, the shutdown comes at a particularly inopportune period for many workers, with holiday bills coming due and as heating bills spike.
Some members of Congress, particularly those representing districts with large numbers of federal workers, say they’re doing what they can to help. Several House lawmakers introduced legislation this week that would guarantee back pay to low wage contract workers once the shutdown ends. In past years, workers have simply had to make do without any hope of regaining their lost income.
“Low-wage federal contract workers can least afford to be penalized by President Trump’s shutdown,” Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, (D-DC) a chief sponsor of the measure, said in a statement.
“Unlike federal employees, who have always been made whole after a shutdown, many low-wage workers, who are the focus of our bill, earn little more than the minimum wage and receive few, if any, benefits,” Norton said.
“And, unlike many other contractors, those who employ low wage service workers have little latitude to help make up for lost wages. We must act to ensure that low wage, federally contracted service workers are not put at a unique disadvantage by the Trump shutdown,” said the lawmaker, who has introduced similar legislation during past shutdowns, although none of those bills ever became law.
Devon Russell, 30, helps support a family that includes three children, his girlfriend and her mom. He has worked for the past three years as a security officer at the National History Museum. He was hoping against hope that the shutdown would be brief and the financial pain minor. “I love my job and it pays well. I don’t really want another job,” said Russell, who lives in Oxon Hill, Maryland.
“I basically thought it was going to be another one of those situations where it wasn’t going to go on long enough where we weren’t going to be affected, but I got proved wrong pretty quickly,” he got his last paycheck on Wednesday and isn’t expecting another one for weeks.
“The next weeks coming, I’m going to have some things to figure out. I don’t really want to leave (but) I can’t wait around too long,” said Russell, whose last day on the job was January 1. He said he knows other security workers who are looking for work to tide them over. Some are even considering getting out of working for the government altogether.
“The majority of us want to just get back to work, doing what we love with the people we love doing it with. But I do know a few other I spoke with who got into looking into other jobs, doing something like Lyft or Uber or other things.”
Johnson’s message to politicians in Washington is delivered with an impatient edge in her voice. “I really truly hope that Congress and the president stop being so selfish and realize that people are suffering and open up the government. We need to go back to work,” said Johnson, who had a particularly sharp rebuke for the president.
“We should not be held hostage because he wants a wall. It’s time to open the government back up. You’re not making America great. You’re taking us back(wards),” she said.
A septuagenarian who is already past what would be retirement age for many Americans, Johnson says she is thinking of taking more stable work less prone to shutdowns.
“I think I’m going to try to apply for bus attendant or crossing guard,” said Johnson, who is already a hardened veteran of three federal shutdowns.
“If I can get it before the government opens back up,” she said, “that would put a little change in my pocket.”