A whole bunch of those people who didn’t have jobs to go to during Trump’s government shut down are not getting paid for that time, and are having to dig out of a hole. They’re the contractors – mostly working the lowest paid jobs in the federal government, barely scraping by, and because they are technically not federal employees, they are out of luck.
Murray-Wright, a cleaning supervisor at the National Portrait Gallery, is one of more than a million federal contract workers nationwide whose income halted when the government partly shuttered for 35 days.
Unlike the 800,000 career public servants who are slated to receive full back pay over the next week or so, the contractors who clean, guard, cook and shoulder other jobs at federal workplaces aren’t legally guaranteed a single penny.
They’re also among the lowest-paid laborers in the government economy, generally earning between $450 and $650 weekly, union leaders say.
So here’s a question: why do we have contractors doing this work, instead of actual employees of the US government? This has become a common thing all through the US economy: bring in people as contractors, avoid the burden of having to treat them like actual employees, toss them out as needed. Employers get to have people doing work without having to provide benefits (they may get them through the contracting firm, and they may not, and if they do they are usually far inferior to what actual employees get).
But here’s the thing: if the government owns all this real estate and is running all of these facilities (office buildings, museums and monuments, and so on), they clearly are going to need people to clean and run the cafeteria and whatnot. Once upon a time, they hired these people. No more.
Private companies are much the same.
There’s an argument that a company or a government agency is not particularly good at running a cleaning or food service operation, and therefore it’s better to have a company that’s expert at this managing it. That’s not unreasonable. However, we could insist that these companies getting these federal contracts provide a level of pay and benefits similar to what federal workers get.
At one point a contractor was generally someone coming in to work a temporary job: someone is out for three months, we need a replacement. We have a big influx of extra work for a limited period and need some extra hands to do it. That’s also very different than what actually happens now.
This is as much a moral question as a financial one. How does our society treat the people who are doing absolutely essential jobs at the bottom of the pay scale? The answer is, pretty damn poorly. And so the American workforce is splitting into haves and have-nots, and guess which group is growing faster?