The US gov't may be open again, but fears remain for contractors

As thousands of federal workers went back to work, uncertainty remained for contractors who were furloughed or laid off.

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    Contractor Ashante Clay was laid off due to the partial government shutdown [Ola Salem/Al Jazeera]
    Contractor Ashante Clay was laid off due to the partial government shutdown [Ola Salem/Al Jazeera]

    Washington, DC - Hundreds of thousands of federal employees went back to work on Monday after the longest government shutdown in US history, but contractor Ashante Clay did not.

    After five years working for Delany Siegel Zorn & Associates (DSZ), an external entity that investigates work disputes at a number of government agencies, Clay was laid off earlier this month.

    In her dismissal letter, the company explicitly said the shutdown was behind her termination, not her performance, and that their decision was final.

    Clay now juggles her time trying to get in last-minute medical appointments before her healthcare coverage ends in mid-February and working temporary jobs to "pay for groceries and car gas".

    "When I just had a baby and could not afford ObamaCare, even, this [job] changed my life and my daughter's," she told Al Jazeera. 

    Clay reads her termination notice [Ola Salem/Al Jazeera]

    She's sent a letter to DSZ to see if there's a possibility her job may be reinstated but was told to wait until later this week for an update. DSZ did not respond to Al Jazeera's request for comment at the time of publication.

    There are an estimated 4.1 million government contractors and grantees across the United States, according to New York University Professor Paul Light, and for many, even with the government back open, their jobs and livelihoods hang in the balance.

    Whitney Brown, a 35-year-old curator with the Smithsonian Institute, did not go back to work either. Her contract ended during the shutdown, and she is now unsure if her contract, which was supposed to be renewed, was processed.

    "It's huge, to lose a month of work," Brown told Al Jazeera. "I feel no resolution, actually [I am] annoyed that people think it's over and don't need to worry about this any more. There was a rush of people asking how I was and if I'm feeling better, but I'm not. I'm angry."

    Brown, who has been worried about falling behind on mortgage and student loan payments, spent the last few weeks working for a wine importer in North Carolina to make ends meet, but she's now unsure if she should return to Virginia for work.

    Other contractors who were furloughed, including Ashleigh Pearsall, an interior designer who does contract work for NASA, worry they may not get the back pay federal employees will receive. 

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    "Government is security. Everyone wants a government job. Now the government is not secure any more," she told Al Jazeera last week at the World Central Kitchen in Washington, DC, which offers food and service assistance to those affected by the shutdown.

    "I just bought a house and had a baby last year. I want my job back. I want my life back," she said.

    In an email, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, told employees that although civil servants would "eventually" receive back pay, the "situation is not as clear for many of our family members in the contracting community".

    'Second-class labour force'

    For some contractors, who asked not to be named, the shutdown made them feel like a "second-class labour force". Some free meals and discounts from restaurants, fast food chains, salons and daycare centres were only extended to federal employees, not contractors.

    "They're the only ones who aren't getting paid," said Seth Harris, a distinguished scholar at Cornell University's School of Industrial & Labor Relations and former acting Secretary of Labor under former President Barack Obama. "Members of Congress are getting paid, the president is getting paid. Contractors' employees never get compensated for work lost to a shutdown." 

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    On Monday, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the shutdown, which began on December 22 over Trump's refusal to back down on his demand for more than $5bn funding for a US-Mexico border wall, cost the US economy $11bn - $3bn of which won't be recovered.

    The CBO noted that its estimates are based on the lost output from furloughed workers, delayed government spending on goods and services and the reduction in aggregate demand. But they didn't include more indirect negative effects of the shutdown, which "are more difficult to quantify but were probably becoming more significant as [the shutdown continued", according to the CBO.

    The shutdown ended on Friday after Trump, his fellow Republicans and Democrats made a deal to reopen the government for three weeks while talks on the border wall continued.

    Following the announcement, dozens of Congress members called for the government to give some contract employees, including janitors, security guards and cafeteria workers, back pay to make up for lost wages. More than 30 Senators sent a letter to Russell Vought, the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, urging him to direct federal agencies to work with contractors to provide back pay to low and middle-income employees.

    Sam Berger, a senior adviser at American Progress who worked at the Office of Management and Budget during the 2013 shutdown under former President Barack Obama, said historically contractors are not compensated during shutdowns, although Congress could provide support if they wanted to.

    "We have not dealt with something this long before. I don't know what the impact will be. I'll tell you, it won't be good," he said. "Ask yourself, how many people you know could go a month without pay? People's bills are not furloughed, that stuff keeps coming."

    Negative effect on businesses

    The shutdown also negatively affected private businesses in areas with high concentrations of federal workers.

    Jamal Ugas, a taxi driver who has driven for 25 years in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera he made $50 a day during the shutdown, compared with the $200 he made prior to the closure.

    Restaurants and food chains near government and contractor buildings have also reported losses as more people ensnared by the shutdown resorted to discretionary spending. This was part of the ripple effect of the shutdown, Harris said. 

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    "It's all those businesses with whom they do business," Harris said. "The grocery store, the gas station, paying their rent, their mortgage. If you put money in the pockets of working people and they turn around and spend it, it creates a positive multiplier for GDP [gross domestic product]."

    Harris added, "The shutdown has wasted a lot of money, damaged services that people in the United States needed, and produced nothing worthwhile."

    The shutdown has wasted a lot of money, damaged services that people in the United States needed, and produced nothing worthwhile.

    Seth Harris,  Cornell University

    On Friday Trump warned that if Republicans and Democrats did not reach an agreement on border security by February 15, the government shutdown could resume.

    For contractor Ashante Clay, her main priority is finding another job that provides the healthcare her family needs and being able to make ends meet.

    "When the shutdown happened, no one at the time said it would be a life-changing thing," she said. "There wasn't a sense of panic of any sort when the shutdown started. We've had shutdowns before. As days dragged on, work stopped coming in. I lost everything in one day."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News