Democratic lawmakers and union representatives joined low-wage workers affected by the federal government shutdown for a press conference Tuesday to announce legislation ensuring those workers receive back pay now that the government has reopened.
The lawmakers, led by Sen. Tina Smith (Minnesota), Rep. Ayanna Pressley (Massachusetts) and D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, are spearheading legislation in the Senate and House to protect those workers, many of whom went unpaid during President Donald Trump’s standoff with House Democrats over border wall funding.
Pressley, who didn’t use the president’s name, said “the occupant of the White House” showed no concern for workers and their families during the shutdown.
“This is about dignity,” she said. This is about fairness. This is about justice. I call on all of our colleagues to work with us to swiftly pass the Fair Compensation Below Wage Contractor Employees Act.”
One such worker, Lila Johnson of Hagerstown, Maryland, who commutes almost two hours a day to her part-time custodial job at the Department of Agriculture in southwest D.C., said she was forced her to withdraw money from her life insurance policy to pay monthly bills during the 35-day partial shutdown, the longest in U.S. history.
Because Johnson works for a company as a federal contractor, the 71-year-old great-grandmother won’t receive back pay now that the shutdown has ended.
“We need to get paid when something like this comes up,” she said during a press conference Tuesday on Capitol Hill alongside Democratic lawmakers and members of her union, 32BJ SEIU. “For me not to get paid [and for] President Trump to divide us and pay some and not pay us, it’s not fair.”
Trump signed a short-term spending bill Friday to reopen the government through Feb. 15. He wants Congress to pass a legislation that includes $5.7 billion to build a wall along the southern border of Mexico.
According to a report released Monday by the Congressional Budget Office, the five-week shutdown cost the country $3 billion.
Norton said the bill is based on contract law, which would permit agreements to be modified based on certain situations. In addition, she sent a letter to the Office of Management and Budget to research and access whether it can offer any recompence for the workers without the use of congressional legislation.
“Surely a shutdown qualifies as a changed condition,” she said.
In the meantime, De’Von Russell of Oxon Hill will receive a paycheck, but for only two days. He received unemployment compensation last week as he waited to return to work as a security guard at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in northwest D.C.
Russell lives with his girlfriend, their 3-year-old daughter and her two children, ages 9 and 10.
“It’s a difficult situation because you’re working one day and then not working,” said Russell, who turns 31 on Feb. 15. “It will essentially take months to dig out of this hole. It’s very upsetting, but I have the support of my family and they’ve been keeping me in good spirits.”