Although Congress usually votes to authorize back pay for federal employees following a government shutdown, federal contractor employees historically have been left out in the cold.
And given the length of this shutdown — now entering its third week with no end in sight — it’s particularly hard to know exactly how many contractor employees will be furloughed and whether they eventually will be paid for their work, Professional Services Council Vice President and Counsel Alan Chvotkin told WashingtonExec.
“The last thing a contractor wants to do is furlough its employees, but the situation is highly fluid,” he said.
PSC recently urged members of Congress to ensure contractor employees are treated as equal partners with their federal counterparts and eventually receive the money they’re due.
“We are gravely concerned about the impact of the current lapse in appropriations on the remaining agencies, on the U.S. citizens who depend on their services, and on the contract employees who support these agencies’ missions,” PSC President and CEO David Berteau said in a recent letter to the leaders of both parties. “Accordingly, we respectfully request that you prioritize full year appropriations for the remaining federal government departments and agencies. We strongly support you working to end this partial government shutdown, and we urge you to ensure equal treatment for contractors in the resolving legislation.”
This Time, It’s Different
Although previous government shutdowns have caused angst among contractors, this one is different from most of them, both in duration and the apparent intractability of the underlying issues that need to be resolved.
While many companies are able to switch some of their employees to other contracts or training programs, eventually the money for these stopgap measures will run out. And although some contractors have successfully filed claims after previous shutdowns based on denied access to government facilities, unlike federal employees, no contractor has ever received back pay through direct appropriations from Congress.
This shutdown “is having a much more significant impact on contractors and their employees” than 16-day shutdown in 2013, Chvotkin said. Back then, companies knew the government probably would reopen quickly.
“Now, there’s far more uncertainty about when the end will come,” he said.
That said, the length of this shutdown seems to have favored contractors in one respect: by bringing more attention to their plight. According to Chvotkin, the impact on contractors has received a lot more media exposure this time around, and that’s a good sign.
“We’re working hard to get a solution to this as part of a comprehensive solution to reopen the government,” he said. “There are still no guarantees that contractors will be treated equally, but at least we’re having a robust discussion.”
New Bill Would Authorize Back Pay for Some Contractors
The issue of contractor pay is garnering attention from some lawmakers as well as the media.
For example, Sens. Tina Smith, D-Minn., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Mark Warner, D-Va., Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Tim Kaine, D-Va., have announced plans to introduce legislation that would secure back pay for low-wage federal contractor employees.
“This is about fairness—American workers shouldn’t be forced to go without a paycheck simply because of President Trump’s government shutdown,” Smith said in a press release. “It’s especially unfair for the low-wage contractor employees who provide the critical work to keep federal buildings clean, operate cafeterias, and keep government property secure. In the past, these workers haven’t received back pay at the end of a government shutdown, and it’s time we right that wrong.”
The bill has not yet been introduced, its fate would be highly uncertain in a polarized Congress.
GAO Report: Some Contractors Didn’t Get Paid After 2013 Shutdown
A 2014 Government Accountability Office report on the 2013 shutdown found some contractor employees were laid off, and that furloughed contractor employees were not necessarily paid by their employer at any point.
Several things affected whether furloughed contractors could be paid during the shutdown, GAO said, including whether work was allowable based on the terms of a given contract, the availability of other assignments, and whether companies chose to or were able to compensate them out of their own pockets if contract funds were unavailable.