'That income is gone': shutdown pain lingers for unpaid contract workers

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Hundreds of thousands of US government contractors went back to work early this week after the end of a record 35-day government shutdown, but Tamela Worthen, who works as a security guard at the Smithsonian museum in Washington DC, wasn’t among them.

Instead, she was at home recovering from an emergency room visit on Monday after a dangerously-elevated blood pressure left her dizzy and feeling like she couldn’t breathe. Worthen has hypertension and after a month of missed paychecks, she was unable to afford her medication this month, causing the flare-up.

The cycle is vicious. She’s not getting paid for the missed time, which causes even more financial strain, which leads to more emotional stress, which compounds a condition like hypertension.

“I just wasn’t feeling like myself. There’s no way I could have been standing on my feet for seven hours,” she said, pivoting quickly to concern over new bills she’ll have to face for this week’s ER visit and ambulance ride.

Tamela Worthen works as a security guard at the Smithsonian museum in Washington DC.



Tamela Worthen works as a security guard at the Smithsonian museum in Washington DC. Photograph: Tamela Worthen

Even if she had been able to make it back, Worthen’s reaction to the end of the shutdown is lukewarm. Unlike federal employees, furloughed contractor employees like Worthen have no reason to expect Congress will vote to pay them their back wages for the work missed during the shutdown.

“It’s just one hurdle after another because you’re already backed up on your bills and you’re already a slave to your check,” Worthen said. “That income is just gone.”

Her frustration with being used as a bargaining chip in Donald Trump’s gambit to secure funding for a border wall is palpable. “The president wants to try to make a point about this wall. He’s not realizing he’s gonna have a lot of blood on his hands because you got people on medicine… What if I had died?”

‘Choosing between buying food and buying medicine’

Worthen’s struggles are not atypical according to Héctor Figueroa, the president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) chapter 32BJ. About 3,000 of his chapter members are government contract workers who were furloughed by their employer during the shutdown.

“It’s been a great hardship for them and people are living on the edge, not knowing if they’re going to be able to pay the rent, choosing between buying food and buying medicine,” Figueroa told the Guardian.

“These are entry-level jobs, many of our members are women – many are single mothers living paycheck to paycheck,” Figuroa added, describing the workers as “overwhelmingly” black and Hispanic.

Black Americans are not only overrepresented in the federal workforce, but black-owned businesses also disproportionately contract with the federal government. According to the business analytics firm Equant, “Black-owned firms comprise 2.1% of all small businesses in the country that have one or more employees. However, such firms make up 11.7% of registered federal contractors.”

That includes firms like LaJuanna Russell’s Virginia-based company Business Management Associates. She said she built the company from “me at my kitchen table” in 2002, to a multimillion dollar firm with nearly 100 employees today providing workforce support for more than a dozen federal agencies and it’s been “scary” to see how easily that could all be taken away.

Russell explained how, during the government shutdown of 2013, her firm lost half its contracts in the blink of an eye.

And many services contractors provide are highly specialized.

“When you do business with the government, there are so many special rules and special requirements that you have to adhere to in a contract, that it doesn’t translate very easily into commercial work,” said David Berteau, the Professional Services Council CEO. PSC represents some 400 companies large and small who contract with the federal government, including Russell’s.

An FDA contract worker collects food and supplies from a food pantry for furloughed workers during the government shutdown, which ended last week.



An FDA contract worker collects food and supplies from a food pantry for furloughed workers during the government shutdown, which ended last week. Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP

PSC and the SEIU are both trying to secure back pay for contractors, which has never been authorized by Congress before. Berteau said: “Equal treatment between contract workers and government workers has been our theme throughout the shutdown,” and he believes there is “more traction” behind that idea than in previous shutdowns.

A bill introduced by Senator Tina Smith, a Democrat of Minnesota, on Tuesday would make back-pay available to low-wage workers employed by outside government contractors, including janitors, cafeteria workers and security guards. A similar bill has been introduced in the House.

“They clean office buildings and keep us safe and secure and serve millions of meals a year,” Smith said during a press conference at the Capitol. “Why should these hardworking people be forced to pay the price of the shutdown themselves?”

That’s a question that comes up for contractors over and over, and there’s no good answer. “It’s just really ridiculous – this wasn’t even a real argument, it was a political argument,” said Russell. “You can’t just utilize people as pawns for political posturing.”

Michelle Oler, who processes real estate transactions for the department of agriculture’s office of rural development agrees. “It’s disappointing because we’re supposed to live in such a great country and yet the ability to earn income gets held over your heads while a political dispute goes on.” Ohler was one of hundreds of contractors who, along with thousands of federal workers, even took to GoFundMe to try and fill in the gap in income while she was furloughed.

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