When the nation’s longest federal government shutdown ended last week, President Donald Trump immediately pledged that he would restore the lost pay of some 800,000 federal workers who either had been furloughed or forced to work without pay.
But he left something out. Even more federal contract workers — a million by some estimates — were hurt by the shutdown. Among their ranks are those unlikely to have a monthlong financial cushion: clerks, cooks, janitors, security guards, support staff. In years past, they might have been employed directly by the federal government, but since the 1990s, pressure to whittle the federal workforce meant many of these jobs were contracted out. Shamefully, these contract workers have borne the brunt of previous shutdowns, watching their federal employee counterparts get back pay while they went without.
Now U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., is leading an effort to do what should have been done after shutdowns under previous administrations: Restore the pay of those who were unable to work through no fault of their own, helpless pawns of squabbling political leaders.
This is an effort that does not yet have strong bipartisan support, but it should. The money, Smith noted, has already been appropriated to agencies as part of their regular budgets. Under the bill, workers would get an average of about $600 per missed paycheck, depending on their wage rate, and there is a cap. That may not cover all losses — and the total cost of the bill remains unknown — but it is a good-faith attempt that would help some repay emergency loans and fees incurred from missed payments and fill the hole the shutdown left in their wallets.
Smith said it’s possible that agencies could order back pay on their own, using their authority to make a contract adjustment because of changed conditions. “A monthlong shutdown should qualify as a changed condition,” she told an editorial writer.
If that is the case, Trump should seize the opportunity to order his agencies to do so, and perhaps reclaim a bit of high ground. During his inaugural address, Trump pledged that “the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no more. And I will fight for you with every breath in my body and I will never, ever let you down.”
Well, Mr. President, the hardworking Americans who help make this government work have been forgotten in the past and should be forgotten no longer. You have the chance to do differently and restore their lost wages, just as those of federal employees will be restored.
There is no reason the recent standoff should result in a windfall for the government that comes courtesy of stiffing workers.
There is another powerful reason to restore these lost wages. Not doing so minimizes the full impact of a shutdown, partly shielding leaders from the consequences of their actions. That is especially important as another deadline looms. Reopening of the federal government is on a time-clock that runs out in less than three weeks. Trump has already signaled that he is prepared to shut down government once again if he dislikes the results of congressional negotiations.
Shutdowns are failures of the political process and should be abandoned by both sides, and we applaud those lawmakers who are working on bills that would ban this harmful tactic. In the meantime, government has a moral obligation not to make these workers pay for the president’s and lawmakers’ failure to reach agreement. The janitor who cleans a senator’s office should not suffer more from the shutdown than those who engineered it.