Government Shutdown Squeezes Contractors as Checks Stop and Invoices Stall

Government Shutdown Squeezes Contractors as Checks Stop and Invoices Stall

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“We are the ones that do the research and gather the data alongside federal workers, yet we don’t have the same safety net or same visibility,” said Chris Fuller, an Environmental Protection Agency contractor.CreditCreditVeasey Conway for The New York Times

When Christopher Fuller and his research team received a “stop work order” on New Year’s Eve, they had four hours to shut down their lab, making sure their chemical and biological samples were securely stored in refrigerators that would keep running if the electricity was shut off.

Mr. Fuller had spent the previous few months with the Environmental Protection Agency in Durham, N.C., studying approaches to decontamination after a biological weapons attack. He is one of legions of contractors hired by the federal government who are suddenly out of work because of the shutdown.

As the shutdown has dragged on to become the longest in American history, these contractors have found themselves in the same predicament as the roughly 800,000 federal employees who are not being paid — except the outcome may be worse. Many contract workers, unlike federal employees, do not expect to be reimbursed for unpaid wages once President Trump and Congress agree to reopen the government.

“We are the ones that do the research and gather the data alongside federal workers,” Mr. Fuller said, “yet we don’t have the same safety net or same visibility.”

There is no official source that tracks the number of contract employees or recipients of federal grants, nor is there recent data showing how many businesses and self-employed professionals have had their contracts suspended during the shutdown. But they are a vital and vast network of workers with jobs that run the gamut: a prep cook in an Agriculture Department cafeteria, a dairy farm appraiser, a radar operator who tracks severe storms.

The struggles of federal contractors show how the shutdown is rippling across the broader economy. Small businesses that rely on government work are in turmoil, as invoices for already completed work go unpaid. On top of that, they have no way to predict when new work may resume, leaving many in the precarious position of trying to wait out the shutdown or seek different work.

“You are talking about a big slice of the work force,” said Paul Light, a professor at New York University who studies federal workers. “I can’t imagine a worse time to have a shutdown, as some think we are headed toward a recession.”

Mr. Light estimates there are 4.1 million federal contractors and grant recipients, not all of whom have been affected by the shutdown. The majority — about 2.8 million — are in service jobs, from health aides to computer programmers.

In 2017, according to Mr. Light, the federal government paid out an estimated $465 billion in contracts, and that amount is expected to have grown last year with increases in military spending.

Government contractors, for the most part, have kept a low profile, not wanting to interrupt the highly competitive but dependable flow of government work. The shutdown has changed that. Many have taken to social media, given interviews and penned op-eds, criticizing leaders in Washington for putting them out of work.

“I am surprised by it,” Mr. Light said. “Trump is someone who takes names. But contractors are compliant to a point. They have businesses they need to run. It is a sign of just how bad it is.”

Jessica Kostrab is an agent booking tours and hotel reservations for visitors to Mount Rainier National Park in Washington State. The shutdown has upended her life, as well as those of many people who live and work near the park, which is now closed to visitors.

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Mr. Fuller, of Durham, N.C., and his wife have had to dip into savings to keep up with mortgage payments and child care for their son.CreditVeasey Conway for The New York Times

Ms. Kostrab, 28, earns about $20 an hour in this job, but she has worked only three days in the past three weeks, and her options for temporary employment are limited. The town where she lives, Ashford, relies on tourism from the park. It’s possible to find work in Tacoma and Seattle, but gas for the round trip would cost more than what she could make in an entry-level job.

“There is a big chunk of people completely at a loss for what they want to do while we wait,” Ms. Kostrab said in an interview.

This week, Senate Democrats have been highlighting the struggles of low-wage contractors, like cafeteria workers and janitors. Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, is planning to introduce a bill that would secure back pay for furloughed contract workers.

The uncertainty is particularly difficult for small contractors who manage their businesses with little cushion for an interruption like the three-week shutdown.

Afshin Levy has been in the dark for weeks. He runs a small factory in Los Angeles, and he has a contract from federal offices for sets of tablecloths and napkins. He’s not sure he will be paid if he goes through with the orders. Without that revenue, he said, he will have a hard time making his payroll.

“It seems everyone is talking about government employees,” Mr. Levy said. “But we are lost in all this. I am responsible for 30 people who need to be paid.”

Some businesses haven’t been paid for work they completed in October. Others are not sure whether they are required to fulfill their current contracts. With many agencies closed, there is often no one to call to clarify.

The effects of a prolonged shutdown could linger for months, even years. Contractors may be more tepid about expanding their businesses and bidding for more government work. The political animosity that produced the current stalemate may result in another government shutdown in the near future. There were three shutdowns in 2018, including this one.

Some contract workers, particularly highly skilled engineers and scientists, may leave for other jobs, outside government work. New college graduates may steer clear altogether.

“This doesn’t make public service look like the place you want to spend your career,” said David J. Berteau, chief executive of the Professional Services Council, a trade group representing federal contractors.

Since the E.P.A. closed its doors on Mr. Fuller, he and his wife, a teacher, have had to dip into savings to keep up with mortgage payments and child care for their 6-month-old son.

He has started looking for a new job in case the shutdown stretches on. He regrets that his research on chemical and biological warfare has been stalled.

“I went into science because it allows you to ask profound questions and solve problems,” Mr. Fuller said. “I have no words that begin to describe how needless and senseless this whole shutdown is.”

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