Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., is introducing an appropriations bill amendment to grant contractors shutdown back pay.

Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., is introducing an appropriations bill amendment to grant contractors shutdown back pay. Susan Walsh/AP

Democratic Senators Renew Push for Contractors to Receive Shutdown Back Pay

The House previously approved a similar measure, but the White House opposed it.

On Tuesday, a group of Democratic senators advocated to secure back pay for federal contractors who went without pay during the 35-day partial government shutdown in late 2018 and early this year.

Unlike the 350,000 federal employees furloughed during the lapse in appropriations, federal contractors were not compensated for the longest shutdown in history that lasted from Dec. 22, 2018, to Jan. 25, 2019. Sens. Tina Smith, D-Minn.; Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.; and Tim Kaine, D-Va. spoke on the Senate floor on Tuesday to push for a Senate appropriations amendment to give hundreds of thousands of contractors back pay. The House already approved this measure in its version of the appropriations package in June

“For one group of workers things are not back to normal,” Smith said. “These are the low wage workers employed by federal contractors serving in cafeterias, providing building security and keeping federal buildings clean...Unfortunately [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell’s substitute amendment strips out this critical provision,” so “what I’m proposing is that we come together in a bipartisan way and that we add back the back pay language.”

Smith, along with the other senators who spoke out Tuesday, introduced the “Fair Compensation for Low-Wage Contractor Employees Act” (S. 162) in January to secure contractors’ back pay. Despite some bipartisan support, there hasn’t been any action on it.

Van Hollen said that most of the federal contractors who would receive back pay only make between $450 and $650 a week. “Without us intervening and doing right by these workers many of them will take years to recover from a financial hole that the shutdown put them in,”  Kaine said. 

Brown spoke about how contractors had to turn to family, run up credit card bills and go to payday lenders as a result of not getting paid during the shutdown. “One SEIU local that represents janitors and security officers said those workers and their families ‘will continue to relive the trauma on a daily basis until they’re compensated for 35 days.’ Thirty-five days of income they went without, already living on the edge,” he said. 

In June, the White House opposed the provision in the House’s bill that would provide contractors with back pay. “While contractors play an important role in helping government agencies meet their missions, this legislation ignores important principles of federal contracting, and would lead to increased cost and a significant increase in the risk of fraud, waste and improper payment,” said a statement from the Office of Management and Budget. “The administration anticipates significant, disruptive, and costly challenges in trying to force-fit the requirements of contractor back-pay legislation into an acquisition system that is not designed or equipped to manage contractor employees.” The Hill reported in February that McConnell was directing questions on back pay to OMB.

Getting the back pay “would mean a lot because that would really help me catch up in my bills and everything else,” said Lila Johnson, a contracted janitor for the Agriculture Department. 

De’von Russell, a contracted security officer at the Smithsonian who is employed by Allied Universal, echoed her sentiment. The shutdown “definitely put me in a hole. All the way up until now I’m living paycheck to paycheck,he told Government Executive. “You kind of start losing hope” as time goes on without back pay, but “it would be a blessing” for it to happen.

As the country grapples with the lasting effects of the previous shutdown, there could be another one if the Congress fails to reconcile its differences on appropriations and the president doesn’t sign a spending bill by Nov. 21.