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Why Aren’t Democrats Standing Up for Low-Wage Government Workers?

Janitors, security guards, and other contractors deserve back pay after the shutdown ends, just like federal employees do.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

House Democrats had big plans for opening the 116th Congress, with showy votes on cracking down on government corruption and protecting pre-existing conditions. But such plans rarely survive contact with reality. The party’s takeover of the House on Thursday coincides with Day 13 of a partial government shutdown of nine cabinet-level departments, a crisis that takes precedence over every other legislative priority.

Nancy Pelosi, the presumptive House speaker, has outlined a two-bill package to fund the government, which will get a vote on Thursday. It’s not likely to end the impasse, but it does signal an intention to make good on promises to the 800,000 or so federal workers who haven’t received a paycheck since the shutdown. Section 2 of the second bill states that “employees furloughed as a result of the lapse in appropriations … shall be compensated at their standard rate of compensation” for the time that they’ve missed.

But only federal employees would be covered by this back-pay clause. That excludes everyone who toils for a federal contractor, particularly the low-wage workers who clean, secure, and staff federal buildings—around 2,000 of them, according to the Service Employees International Union. When the Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo closed on Wednesday, contract workers who provide concessions and take tickets also got sent home, adding to the ranks.

Contractors are the most vulnerable people in the federal workforce, the ones who can least afford a disruption in their pay. And yet, in the aftermath of government shutdowns, they are the only employees who don’t get compensated after the fact. In 2013, when the government closed for 16 days, federal workers received back pay, but low-wage contractors did not, causing serious financial depression for struggling families in Washington. “When the politicians closed the government, they didn’t think about the impact it would have on our families,” Pablo Lazaro, a cook at a Smithsonian museum, said at the time.

Workers in those same jobs half a decade later fear the future, as President Trump and Congress wrangle over a border wall. “I wouldn’t buy any Christmas gifts knowing the government is gonna shut down,” Bonita Williams, a janitor at the State Department, told the Washington Post. Others worried about being unable to pay their rent or car insurance or utilities. And this will only get worse as the shutdown continues.

The federal government is effectively the nation’s largest employer of low-wage workers: It funds 4.5 million contractor jobs that pay less than $15 an hour, according to Good Jobs Nation. Thanks to an executive order from President Obama in 2014, the minimum wage for federal contract employees was boosted to $10.35. But that’s not enough to keep these workers out of poverty, even when they’re not missing paychecks due to a shutdown.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents many of these workers as the House delegate from the District of Columbia, has been their lonely champion over the years. Of course, Holmes Norton doesn’t get a vote that counts in Congress.

It’s immoral for Congress to protect every federal worker except those who are earning the lowest wages in the government. Their struggle ought to be the first priority for the new crop of freshman progressives—like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib—who are entering Congress with bold pledges to fight for the poor and downtrodden. For Pelosi’s government-funding package to pass the House on a party-line vote, she can’t afford more than 17 nays from Democrats. So even a small fraction of Progressive Caucus members could force her to include a provision providing back pay to federal contractors.

It would not cost an exorbitant sum to do right by these workers. Reimbursing 2,000 contract janitors and security guards for three weeks’ pay at the D.C. minimum wage of $13.25 an hour comes out to $3.18 million—not even a rounding error in the total U.S. budget.

Contract workers are habitually the ultimate victims of power plays between the White House and Congress. That has to end. There’s no good argument for protecting federal workers, as is done routinely, while janitors and security guards get quietly stiffed. This is now a test for left-wing Democrats. You can give speeches about being an advocate for low-wage workers, but that’s worthless if you’re not speaking up for them when they need it the most.