U.S. federal contractors fight for back pay after shutdown

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With the U.S. government shutdown over, Lila Johnson returns to work on Friday cleaning bathrooms as an employee of a federal contractor, but unlike those who work directly for the government, she is not getting any of the pay she lost during the month-long hiatus.

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Johnson, 71, and other union members joined congressional lawmakers on Tuesday in pushing for legislation that would provide back pay to low-wage government contract workers who went unpaid during the 35-day shutdown

“I’m a little furious. Why can’t we be paid? We work hard too,” said Johnson, who commutes an hour each way to the federal office building where she works, helping to support two great grandchildren, ages 6 and 14.

President Donald Trump, whose demand for funding for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border triggered the shutdown, signed legislation that makes back pay available for 800,000 federal employees. But that legislation did not include government contractors.

A bill introduced by Senator Tina Smith, a Democrat from Minnesota, would make back pay available to low-wage workers who are 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?”

It was not clear how many contract workers provide services to the federal government, though some estimates run into the millions.

The Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, which represents Johnson and nearly 600 other contract employees, said its workers earn some of the lowest wages in the federal government.

“They live from paycheck to paycheck,” said Hector Figueroa, president of 32BJ SEIU. “Even if they return to work, if they don’t get this money back their lives are going to be impacted dramatically forever.”

De’Von Russell, a security guard at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, said he does not see why contract employees should be treated differently than government employees.

“Let’s not just flush our money down the toilet. We deserve it just like everybody else,” he said.

Johnson said the school that her two great grandchildren attend provided donated winter clothes to the boys, and she had to cash in a life insurance policy during the shutdown. She said going back to work will not make up for what she lost.

“Pay our back pay. That’s the only way I am going to see myself getting out of the hole, because I am so far in debt,” she said.

Reporting by Katharine Jackson; Editing by Lisa Shumaker