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Contract Employees Are Still Trying To Recover From Shutdown


The partial government shutdown is over. Federal employees are back on their jobs. Contract workers, though, are still trying to recover from what for many was a huge economic blow. As NPR's Pam Fessler reports, they worry that another shutdown could push them over the edge.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Loniece Hamilton is a security guard at the Smithsonian's American History Museum where visitors can see, among other things, an exhibit called "American Democracy: A Great Leap Of Faith." Hamilton saw that democracy in action last month when she was out of work for five weeks. Now she's back on the job taking another leap of faith - that her future income is secure.

LONIECE HAMILTON: I was happy to be back to work so I can pay some of my bills. But, you know, they say it's - it might only last about three weeks, so I'm kind of scared.

FESSLER: Scared because President Trump has threatened another shutdown if he and congressional Democrats don't agree on funding a border wall by February 15 and scared because she's a single mother of a 5-year-old who racked up a bunch of bills during the shutdown. Unlike regular federal employees, contractors don't get back pay. Hamilton borrowed from her relatives to get by, but now she's behind on her $1,000-a-month rent. Her landlord took her to court where she's trying to work out a payment schedule.

HAMILTON: It was really embarrassing because I have never been in this situation before. Like, I'm always on time with all of my bills, so it's very hard, and it was frustrating.

FESSLER: No one knows for sure how many government contractors were affected by the shutdown, but it's estimated to be more than half a million. Many of these workers are low income and provide services like food, cleaning and security at government buildings. Most of them are back on the job but not all.

JOHN KELLY: Even today, we still have 61 percent of these individuals that are still not back to work.

FESSLER: John Kelly is talking about the 2,000 contract workers with disabilities who his organization, SourceAmerica, helps to place in government jobs. Kelly says it can take weeks to get such contracts back up and running, something that's very disruptive for people who already face multiple challenges.

KELLY: There's always a risk when you have people out for an extended period of time, especially individuals with disabilities who depend on structure and routine that going to work plays, when you mess up that routine, when it's interrupted, especially for an extended period of time like 35 days, you know, you lose track of people, and people get out of that routine.

BARBARA MITCHELL: The impact was just unbearable for me.

FESSLER: Barbara Mitchell, who has problems with her vision, is one of the workers helped by SourceAmerica. She's back at her custodial job at NASA headquarters just blocks from the U.S. Capitol. Mitchell says the biggest impact of the shutdown on her was emotional, especially because she's trying to adopt her 14-month-old great-granddaughter and wants her to have a stable home.

MITCHELL: You know, I had my moments as far as depression and being sad and, you know - I don't know. It just took a toll on my livelihood.

FESSLER: Mitchell thinks she'll be able to catch up on her bills in a couple of months but only because she hopes that Congress will pass legislation that would give low-wage contractors their back pay, just like regular federal employees. Bills introduced in both the House and Senate would do just that, but so far, they've attracted little Republican support. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.