It will take Lila Johnson months to rebound from the financial hit she endured earlier this year, going for weeks without pay during the federal government shutdown.
A contracted custodian who has worked for the past 21 years at the Department of Agriculture, Johnson still has not been reimbursed for her lost income, and her rage at President Donald Trump — who forced the shutdown in a bit to procure funding for his border wall — continues to grow. “It was just ridiculous for him to act the way he did as a leader,” Johnson told ThinkProgress.
“He punished the people, held us hostage because of something that he promised his voters. He promised his voters that he was going to build the wall. He’s the one who promised Mexico was going to pay for the wall,” she said.
“And when he couldn’t get his way, he was like, ‘I’m going to shut everything down.’ And that is not leadership of running the United States.”
A great-grandmother in her seventies, Johnson cleans bathrooms four hours per night, five days a week. Two months ago, for 35 days — the longest U.S. government shutdown in history — she went without pay.
The hit on her income has left Johnson in a financially precarious position, scraping, scrimping, struggling more than ever to get by. She is holding out now for her tax refund. “Maybe that will pull me up more than I am now,” she said.
While 800,000 federal workers were either furloughed or forced to work without pay, Trump held a nation captive over his border wall, the construction plans for which read like scribbles from his dream journal: it is to be a “powerful wall,” perhaps a “steel barrier,” or maybe, actually, a “smart wall” utilizing drones and sensors.
Needless to say, the wall has not arrived, in any form. Nor, for federal contractors like Johnson, has back pay. Although federal employees were eligible for and ultimately received back pay, the federal contractors who were also affected by the shutdown have not. (Since they are privately hired, estimates about just how many federal contractors there are range pretty widely, with some estimates putting the number nationwide at more than a million.)
The government pays third-party companies for contractor work, which means contractors don’t get paid unless their services are actually used.
Last month, Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) introduced a bill to ensure back pay for federal contract workers: the Fair Compensation for Low-Wage Contractor Employees Act, which “aims to help low-wage federal contractor employees—including janitorial, food, and security services workers—who were furloughed or forced to accept reduced work hours as a result of the recent government shutdown.”
Since it was engineered for low-wage workers, the bill had its limits: payments would be capped at $965 per worker per week. But Trump refused to sign a spending package that included back pay for contractors.
“It’s not fair for the American people to live the way they’re living because [Trump] is selfish,” Johnson said. “He only thinks about what he wants. That’s the mind of a child, to me. That’s not leadership.”
“There is an important piece of unfinished business from the past government shutdown that we still need to resolve: providing back pay for the employees of federal contractors who lost over one month’s pay,” Smith said in a statement to ThinkProgress.
“These thousands of Americans work shoulder to shoulder with federal employees for all of us — many as security guards, cafeteria workers, and people who clean office buildings—and they must be made whole. Several of my Republican colleagues and the entire Democratic caucus supports this effort, so we should be able to find a solution.”
During the shutdown, stories about these contractors — who overwhelmingly are immigrants and people of color — made headlines. There was a Smithsonian museum security guard whose car was repossessed, another who rationed her children’s asthma medicine, still others applying for food stamps and fearing eviction. The shutdown’s financial toll on contractors lingers like a hangover the country can’t shake.
In a statement, Jaime Contreras, a vice president at 32BJ SEIU, the guild which represents over 600 federally-contracted workers, said the union “will not rest until federal agencies pay the men and women who clean and secure federal buildings the back pay they deserve and need for bills they still can’t afford to pay.”
These workers “live paycheck to paycheck and faced eviction, power shut off and hunger among many hardships during the Trump shutdown,” Contreras said.
Among them is Julia Quintanilla, who has been working as a custodian at the Department of Agriculture for 28 years. Along with other contracted workers, she cleans about 60 offices a day. Quintanilla remembers the shutdown during President Barack Obama’s tenure as just “a little bit” of a problem.
The 35-day shutdown under Trump “was a disaster,” she told ThinkProgress through a translator. Even with assistance from her church, her union, and her family, she was “scraping by” without her paycheck. By the time the shutdown was over, it had completely wiped out her savings.
“It was thousands and thousands of people who were affected — and actually devastated, that’s the right word,” she said. “We were devastated by this.”
For the month or so she was out of work, Quintanilla alternated attending protests with her union, which helped collect donations and distribute gas coupons, and going to churches to get free food, “just trying to get by,” she said.
She lives intermittently with her son and permanently with her mother and her three-year-old grandson, who has severe muscular and developmental disabilities; he cannot walk or speak.
Her mother “needs medicine and that’s very expensive,” Quintanilla said. “So we’re still feeling the pain of the money that we lost.” She also has outstanding debt with family members who lent her money to tide her over during the shutdown.
The entire experience has left her rattled and anxious. “This makes you think about it all the time,” she said. “So when you hear about possible future shutdowns, it weighs heavy on your mind, in a way that it might not have before.”
Like Quintanilla, Johnson is the primary caretaker for her family. She’s raising two great-grandsons, ages 6 and 14, and has since they were babies. Even with money she gets from the government for being their legal guardians, a foster care stipend of $850 per child per month, Johnson relies on her income from her contract work. After taxes, she typically takes home $756 every two weeks. Once the shutdown was over, “I had to work for a whole month before I even got a decent check.”
Johnson, too, “was basically blessed as far as people reaching out to me, helping. My family helped as much as they can, but they have their own life to live, so I basically just did the best I could.” She also had some assistance from church and friends “that carried me through.”
For many of her bills — car note, credit card — she asked that companies be lenient giving her time to pay what she could, and “they were pretty reasonable.” Support came from just about everywhere, it seems, except for the federal government, which employed these contractors — and initiated and prolonged the shutdown — in the first place.
“I still have those moments when I thought about, not only myself, but I thought about everyone else,” Johnson said. “Because my heart went out to other people, too. If I was going through what I was going through, I can imagine the pain that other people have that didn’t have nothing… That was very stressful, just to see those people trying to take care of their families,” she said.
“Some had to sell their cars. Some couldn’t pay their bills and didn’t know where their next meal was coming from. Some didn’t even have money to pay for their childcare,” she said.
“It was just more stressful to see other people going through what I was going through.”