WASHINGTON ― Kaneisha Onley was thrilled to learn Friday that the government would reopen and she would be able to return to her job as a Smithsonian museum security guard.
But it was too late to save her car. She fell behind on payments and the 2012 Chevy Malibu had already been repossessed ― taken away from her driveway by a tow truck just hours before President Donald Trump agreed to reopen federal agencies he’d held hostage in a futile effort to win support for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
On Wednesday, when she first goes back to work, Onley will have to ask family members for help getting to the nearest subway station to her house in Olney, Maryland, which is about an hour outside of Washington.
“I don’t have any money to get to work,” Onley, 27, said in an interview. “I’ve asked so many family members for help but they still have their life as well.”
And unlike the 800,000 federal workers who will get five weeks’ worth of back pay now that the shutdown is over, Onley will get nothing. She works for a security contractor, not the government itself.
Congress routinely approves back pay for federal workers who missed wages during a shutdown, and the most recent funding lapse is no exception. But thousands of federal contract workers don’t get paid back, leaving many contractor employees, such as food workers, janitors, security officers and computer software developers behind on their bills.
Democrats introduced legislation that would direct federal agencies to adjust the terms of contracts with private companies that had been suspended or interrupted by the shutdown. Agencies would pay the contractors for the cost of their lowest-paid employees’ missing wages, so long as it’s not more than what the employees regularly earned. Firms’ participation in the backpay scheme would be voluntary.
“It uses a mechanism that exists to reimburse contractors for expenses incurred under a shutdown ... it just applies it to labor costs, which has never been done before. It’s a nice simple way of dealing with” the problem, Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.), who introduced the bill earlier this month, said on Tuesday.
Bills to repay federal employees are usually uncontroversial and bipartisan ― Congress has in the past voted to reimburse federal workers once shutdowns ended. The plan to repay contractors, however, has only Democratic supporters so far. Smith told HuffPost she hoped Republicans would support it “because it seems clear that if you support back pay for federal employees, these are the same people working side-by-side with federal employees and they should get the same kind of treatment.”
Trump signed legislation into law earlier this month guaranteeing back pay for federal employees who were forced off the job during the longest government shutdown in history, which sucked $3 billion out of the economy that will not be recovered, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That sum partly represents the unpaid wages of thousands of federal contractors.
White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney told CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday that the issue of back pay for contractors will “depend on the contract.” Trump’s chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow, meanwhile, said he wasn’t familiar with the issue.
“I think the defense-related ones will … I honestly don’t know,” Kudlow, who chairs the White House council of economic advisers, told reporters during a White House press briefing on Monday.
Proponents of the effort to reimburse federal contractors for lost wages hope to include the Smith measure in a broader agreement on border security currently being negotiated by a bipartisan conference committee that was formed after Trump agreed to reopen the government last week. Those discussions on continued government funding face a deadline of Feb. 15, however, and it’s not clear whether both sides will reach an accord in time, given Trump’s insistence on funding to begin constructing a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border that Democrats oppose.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said not all contract workers should get repaid and it would depend on their assignment.
“I think you really have to do that on an agency-by-agency basis,” Tillis told HuffPost. “There’s probably some instances when you should.”
One problem for the bill is that it’s not totally clear how many contract employees missed pay because of the shutdown or how many would benefit from the legislation. Democrats said Tuesday they’re still trying to find out the total number of people who work for companies on federal contracts. According to an estimate by Good Jobs Nation, a labor-backed group that often advocates for federal contract workers, more than 1 million such workers were stiffed by the shutdown.
The federal government uses contractors instead of employing people directly to cut costs, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said.
“The federal government uses contractors ― that was work previously done by federal workers ― because they wanted to save money,” Norton said. But “we have no right to save money by depriving employees who were kept from going to work.”
The legislation would cap payments at $965 per worker per week, so it would make workers whole only if they earn less than $50,000 annually. Workers who earn more could still be paid back for the portion of their wages that is less than $50,000 on an annualized basis, but the bill is designed especially for lower-paid janitors who clean federal buildings and security guards like Onley.
Onley and several other non-government government workers came to the Capitol on Tuesday to stand with Smith and other sponsors of her legislation. The workers are members of a local chapter of the Service Employees International Union, which says it represents more than 600 janitors and security officers who were furloughed during the shutdown.
Onley said she had already fallen behind on car payments before the shutdown. She’d been unemployed for several weeks before she got her security guard job with Allied Universal in November. She has a 3-year-old daughter and managed the past five weeks with the help of friends and family, who gave her $20 here, $30 there.
She’s glad Democrats are pushing for back pay but aware that it might not work out.
“That’s the sad thing, it’s not a definite,” Onley said. “We’re here to fight for it. All we can do is pray.”
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story said the legislation would only benefit workers who earn less than $50,000. The bill actually would repay any worker but at a weekly rate that on an annualized basis is less than $50,000. This story has also been updated to include the Good Jobs Nation estimate of how many contract workers were furloughed by the shutdown.