House Democrats had big plans for opening the 116th Congress, with showy votes on cracking down on government corruption and protecting pre-existing conditions. But such plans rarely survive contact with reality. The party’s takeover of the House on Thursday coincides with Day 13 of a partial government shutdown of nine cabinet-level departments, a crisis that takes precedence over every other legislative priority.
Nancy Pelosi, the presumptive House speaker, has outlined a two-bill package to fund the government, which will get a vote on Thursday. It’s not likely to end the impasse, but it does signal an intention to make good on promises to the 800,000 or so federal workers who haven’t received a paycheck since the shutdown. Section 2 of the second bill states that “employees furloughed as a result of the lapse in appropriations … shall be compensated at their standard rate of compensation” for the time that they’ve missed.
But only federal employees would be covered by this back-pay clause. That excludes everyone who toils for a federal contractor, particularly the low-wage workers who clean, secure, and staff federal buildings—around 2,000 of them, according to the Service Employees International Union. When the Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo closed on Wednesday, contract workers who provide concessions and take tickets also got sent home, adding to the ranks.
Contractors are the most vulnerable people in the federal workforce, the ones who can least afford a disruption in their pay. And yet, in the aftermath of government shutdowns, they are the only employees who don’t get compensated after the fact. In 2013, when the government closed for 16 days, federal workers received back pay, but low-wage contractors did not, causing serious financial depression for struggling families in Washington. “When the politicians closed the government, they didn’t think about the impact it would have on our families,” Pablo Lazaro, a cook at a Smithsonian museum, said at the time.
This is an error on the part of Democrats and it should be fixed. I don’t know if it was intentional or the contracted workers just got forgotten about. But either way, it is emblematic of the deep problems with our economy, superficial numbers about unemployment notwithstanding. Subcontracts for service work are so standard today that no one thinks about it. But this is a terrible thing. There was a time when employers themselves hired cooks and janitors. That required full consideration as employees. Now, everything from prisons to school cafeterias are outsourced to contractors. They make minimum wage or close to it. They lack unions. They have no voice. And when the government shuts down, they are forgotten about too. We have to start moving in a different direction on these issues and prioritize the rights and livelihoods not only of the middle class workers who labor directly for the government, but of the low-paid workers who make it all happen.