Federal Contract Workers Won't Get Back Pay In Latest Budget Deal

Republican leaders don't want to repay federal contract employees who missed wages during the shutdown.

WASHINGTON ― Republican lawmakers didn’t like a back pay scheme for federal contract workers who missed paychecks during the government shutdown, so it was left out of a broader deal on spending and border security.

A budget deal struck late Wednesday will fund government operations through September, but it won’t pay for a border wall that President Donald Trump had promised to build, and it won’t help contract workers. If approved, the deal will prevent another government shutdown at the end of the week. 

Lawmakers already approved back pay for the 800,000 federal employees who missed wages during the 35-day partial shutdown that ended last month, but left out the unpaid workers who are employed by federal contractors.

Democrats, led by Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.), have been pushing legislation that would allow federal agencies to reimburse contractors that pay workers who missed checks during the shutdown ― especially low-wage janitors and security guards at federal buildings here in Washington. 

Two Republicans ― Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Susan Collins (Maine) ― have co-sponsored Smith’s bill, but Republican leaders aren’t going along.

“I don’t think we should at this moment let it get in the way of funding the government on Friday,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of the Senate GOP leadership team, told HuffPost on Wednesday.

A Trump administration official familiar with the legislation said that the process of implementing the proposal alone could cost as much as the actual payments to contract workers and that there would be a high risk of erroneous payments and fraud.

Democrats, led by Sen. Tina Smith (center), are pushing a bill to allow federal agencies to reimburse contractors that p
Democrats, led by Sen. Tina Smith (center), are pushing a bill to allow federal agencies to reimburse contractors that pay workers who missed checks during the shutdown.

A Senate Democratic aide said Democrats were willing to change the legislation to address the administration’s concerns, but that Office of Management and Budget officials hadn’t requested any changes. 

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said he hoped negotiators crafting the larger spending package would find a way to help contractors, but he suggested it’s a tricky task.

“I just don’t think it’s ever been done before,” Thune said.

Congress has routinely approved back pay for federal employees after shutdowns, but it has never done the same for contractors ― even though the latter workers may be even more numerous than the regular federal workforce. 

More than 1 million federal contract workers may have missed wages during the shutdown, according to Good Jobs Nation, a union-backed group that often advocates on behalf of contract employees. The group added up the value of contracts at the nine federal agencies for which funding lapsed in December and then divided by the dollar receipts per employee for the related industry groups.

Democrats have said they’re not sure how many contract workers were affected, but their legislation is designed to pay companies for wage reimbursement so long as each employee’s wages would amount to less than $50,000 on an annualized basis. The program would be voluntary for companies. 

“All the conversations we’ve had with contractors and with people in the federal government who manage contracts tell us this is the most streamlined and simplest way to make this happen, and we expect contractors to ask for that back pay,” Smith told HuffPost last month. “It’s in their best interest as well as the interest of their workers.”

In a statement late Wednesday, Smith said she would continue to push her legislation, though it’s hard to see how it could get through the Senate without being attached to a must-pass spending bill. 

This article has been updated to note that the Smith contractor legislation was left out of a deal to fund federal operations for the rest of the fiscal year.