Government Contractors Working During Shutdown, May Not Get Back Pay
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The federal government remains partially shut down this morning, and it does not look like the White House and Congress are any closer to an agreement over President Trump's demand for a border wall.
Now, this is affecting federal employees in different ways. In the agencies affected, some people are working and will likely get paid for the time later. Some are furloughed. And in the past, they have gotten backpay later on as well.
But for contract workers, it is grim. Many are out of work indefinitely and might not get paychecks at all. That includes 71-year-old Lila Johnson. She does cleaning work overnight at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
LILA JOHNSON: We have floor men that are keeping the floors clean, you know, other ladies cleaning bathrooms. You got people cleaning the area, making it safe for the people to walk when they come back to work
GREENE: But not right now. The Agriculture Department is partially shut down, and Lila Johnson's supervisor told her not to come in, which has been really difficult because she's the breadwinner in her family and also takes care of two great-grandchildren.
JOHNSON: It's hard on me right now because I got everything, you know, hitting me. I got car notes, insurance, life insurance, rent. I have food to put on the table for the children myself. And it's just hard. I have other bills to pay.
GREENE: And I want to bring in another voice now. It's Jaime Contreras. He is vice president of the SEIU 32BJ service workers union, which represents federal contract workers, including Lila Johnson. They put us in contact with her as well. He is in our studios here in Washington. Welcome.
JAIME CONTRERAS: Pleasure to be here.
GREENE: So how typical is Lila Johnson's situation?
CONTRERAS: I mean, Lila Johnson is one story of 71 at the Department of Agriculture. You have similar stories at State Department, where people were let go. They were told not to come to work. And those people are not sure if they're going to get paid or not.
GREENE: How many do you think, in total, are we talking about in all the agencies that are affected?
CONTRERAS: Well, in this area, we - our union represents around 2,000 contracted out workers at federal agencies. In this particular cycle of government shutdown, it's close to 800 workers.
GREENE: Eight hundred or so.
CONTRERAS: You know, we have 400 security officers that keep the Smithsonian Institution safe. Their funding runs out next Tuesday. They have no idea what's going to happen after that. And that's just not - it's not fair. It's not right. It's not what we should be doing for the people who keep our buildings - our federal buildings safe and clean.
GREENE: And it sounds like Lila Johnson - I mean, she really relies on these paychecks to help her great-grandchildren, to put food on the table, I mean, to pay the rent. How long can a lot of these workers go without money coming in and without the prospect of knowing when they'll get money?
CONTRERAS: Well, these are workers who already work two jobs in order to be able to maintain their households. These are people who live paycheck to paycheck. They have, for the most part, no savings 'cause they spend all their money.
One day that you don't get paid, it has an effect on their livelihood. Some people have to borrow money from other relatives. Some people have to call their bank and say, hey, I'm going to be late because I'm not getting paid. And some of these corporations work with you, some of them won't. And so they start accumulating late fees, and they have to deal with that mess.
So it's just wrong. It's wrong to do that to people - working families. Whether you're black, brown, white, I mean, we want a government that works. We want people who are going to be able to make deals and put people and country in front of politics. And that's not what we have in this country at this moment.
GREENE: Well, President Trump, as you know, has said - he's made this claim that the people who have been impacted by this understand the need for the shutdown. He says that they understand that he needs to fight for border security. What are you hearing from the workers who you represent?
CONTRERAS: I absolutely disagree with that. I mean, if you talk to any of the workers, workers understand that this president, this administration is playing games with their livelihoods.
And for him to continue to push an issue that he knows is not going to get support in the Senate - and even though he has his friends of the Freedom Caucus in the House, you know, why don't you sign the bipartisan compromise that was done a week or so ago and not put the country and people through this mess that we're in right now?
GREENE: Some have blamed Democrats as well, I mean, saying they have really dug in on this issue and there are things that they could do to compromise - figure out some sort of barrier to give President Trump a little bit of what he wants - actually negotiate.
I mean, are some of your workers actually pointing the finger at both sides and saying, come on, Washington? Like, just come up with something so we can get back to work here.
CONTRERAS: There's always finger-pointing to both sides, but we know who's in charge. The fact of the matter is Republicans control the House, they control the Senate, they're in charge in the White House. They don't want to compromise. I mean, the president said it on national TV - I'll be proud to shut down the government over the border wall.
GREENE: Has your union been able to do anything to help some of these workers as they've been going through this?
CONTRERAS: We're working with some of our, you know, allies in the community. Through the labor council here in D.C., we had the Community Services Agency, who is taking collections for our members to try to help them cope through this mess until they, you know - our wonderful politicians figure out what to do with opening up the government, which, right now, is completely uncertain.
Until we have a new Congress, these workers are living in limbo.
GREENE: What kind of work did you do before taking over a leadership job at the union?
CONTRERAS: Well, you know, one of the things that makes it a little more personal for me is because, you know, I'm an immigrant. I came to this country in 1988 during the civil war in El Salvador. I came here undocumented. My parents had no choice but to bring me undocumented.
Since then, I became a citizen. I served in the United States Navy, and I've been working for the union for over 23 years now. But I started as a rank-and-file cleaner at 1800 M St. many, many years ago. And so...
GREENE: That's a building in Washington, D.C.
CONTRERAS: It's a building in Washington, D.C. So I was a cleaner. This, to me, is personal because it's - when I served this country in the U.S. military, as a veteran, to me, it's offensive what this president is doing, you know, vilifying immigrants, made this wall the top priority of his administration when immigrants, everybody knows, have and continue to contribute in so many ways to this economy, to this country, to the culture.
It's not a reason to shut down the government. It's not a reason to put regular, working people like Lila Johnson and others at risk of losing their homes, paying their bills or feeding their families.
GREENE: Jaime Contreras is the vice president of the SEIU 32BJ service workers union that represents many of the federal contract workers who are put out of work right now as part of the partial government shutdown. Thank you very much for your time.
CONTRERAS: Thank you for having me.
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