The shutdown was just as difficult for federal contractors—people who work for private companies that do business with the federal government—as it was for federal employees. But unlike many of their colleagues in the public sector, their return to work doesn’t come with a guarantee of back pay.
Talking Points Memo spoke to one woman, Michelle Oler, who put up a GoFundMe to help pay her bills while her contract was suspended.
“The estimate of what I’ve lost financially due to the shutdown is upwards of $3,500. The anxiety, sleeplessness and depression make it feel like much more,” Oler told TPM. Her GoFundMe has only raised $50.
People like Oler still don’t know when they’ll be able to return to work. It takes time for the government to get up and running after the longest shutdown in history, and private contractors won’t immediately be utilized as they were before. It’s possible that some of them won’t be able to return to the same jobs.
Kevin Doyle, a father of three, estimated he’s out around $5,000 from his contracting job as an encryption specialist at Laughlin Air Force Base on the Texas-Mexico border. He said he didn’t sleep and lost weight during the shutdown as both the stress and the bills piled up.
Doyle said he will return to work on Monday, but he starts a new job Friday with another company that he hopes will be more stable if talks fail over Trump’s demand for money for a wall and another shutdown begins next month.
“We were scraping pennies and nickels together one day to get the baby a Happy Meal,” said Doyle, 40. “It’s just that bad.”
Last week, contractors also contacted Splinter about the pain the shutdown was putting them through. From one of their emails:
We’ve already been told there’s no chance of back pay since we’re contractors. Some of the supervisors have been openly trash talking employees who have been vocal about their unhappiness at the situation. A lot of people are working themselves ragged trying to rack up as much overtime as possible to prepare for being out of work. Tensions are high and morale is lower than I’ve ever seen it.
Contracting jobs with the government have risen steadily since the 1980s, with a huge uptick in the early 2000s as the government, amidst the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, employed private companies for security and arms production. A study in 2017 found that four out of every 10 people who do work for the government are employed by a private company.
The reason given for contracting out government jobs is usually price, but in 2011, a report found that contrary to popular belief, giving government work to private companies cost the government more than if it did the work itself.
For contractors, who don’t have the stability of full-time employment or government healthcare, working for the government is starting to seem like more stress than it’s worth.
“While I love being a contractor, I hate the uncertainty that’s come with it. This happened to us last year on a smaller scale, but this year’s shutdown has me concerned for my future and welfare,” Oler told TPM.
She’s right to worry: acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said on Sunday that Trump would shut down the government again if a deal isn’t reached with Congress over funding for the border wall. Trump told reporters he wouldn’t accept any deal that provided less than $5.7 billion. In three weeks, this could all happen again, and contractors have no idea whether they’ll get paid in the intervening time.