Government Shutdown: Contractors Don't Expect Back Pay, Collect Unemployment One expert estimates millions of contractors in the federal workforce won't receive back pay when the shutdown ends.
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Not Expecting Back Pay, Government Contractors Collect Unemployment, Dip Into Savings

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Not Expecting Back Pay, Government Contractors Collect Unemployment, Dip Into Savings

Not Expecting Back Pay, Government Contractors Collect Unemployment, Dip Into Savings

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Several kinds of people are directly affected by the partial government shutdown. There are federal workers who are furloughed, not being paid. There are federal workers who must work and are also not being paid. They may get back pay eventually once a deal is reached, but then there are contract workers who have little chance to collect back pay for the work they're missing. NPR's David Welna has the story.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Sixty-two-year-old Greg Seymour is an archaeologist who works in the Great Basin National Park that spreads across the Nevada-Utah border. He's employed by a company that's a contractor with the National Park Service, but he's not working.

GREG SEYMOUR: It's been a couple of weeks now. I actually feel stabbed in the back. It's kind of depressing, actually.

WELNA: And because he's not billing any hours, Seymour does not expect to get any back pay whenever the shutdown ends.

SEYMOUR: I was going to buy a truck - a brand new truck. That is on, possibly, permanent hold now because I don't feel like I can trust the economy - my economy, especially. So I'm just going to live with what I have.

WELNA: Seymour did not apply for unemployment insurance when he was first furloughed. He considered it a pittance, but he intends to do so today.

SEYMOUR: And I'm not really sure it's worthwhile. I've never done that before, so that would be a new experience for me. And frankly, I really don't want to collect unemployment. But if I have to, I will.

WELNA: And so, too, are many other federal contract employees. New York University's Paul Light is a leading expert on the federal workforce. He says there's been scant public awareness of the contract workers' plight during shutdowns. That's because unlike federal employees, there is no systematic tracking of those contract workers. What is known is there is a lot of them.

PAUL LIGHT: I estimate that we have about 4.1 million contract employees - full-time equivalent. So we've got a very large federal workforce with a majority of employees who are not on Uncle Sam's direct payroll. They are part of the indirect workforce.

WELNA: And yet, they've been directly affected.

JOE PINNETTI: I did not think the national politics would be affecting my role as an IT specialist at United States Fish and Wildlife.

WELNA: That's 33-year-old Joe Pinnetti. Normally, he gets $22 an hour working for a company in Western Massachusetts that contracts with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But he has not worked at all since the shutdown began and does not expect to recover his lost income.

PINNETTI: When you're a contractor, it's understand that there's a certain amount of risk taken with your job. So I don't think that the federal government will see it as something that they need to compensate us for.

WELNA: Pinnetti lives alone, and he's already begun collecting unemployment insurance. Hopes of finishing a college degree have been put on hold by the shutdown.

PINNETTI: It's going to be rough. I'm digging deep into my savings right now. I would remain solvent for about two more months. The problem is I'm already having to sacrifice things to do so. I mean, this showdown has costs. So I might have to take a semester off from school to rebuild my savings.

WELNA: Pinnetti expects to still have a job whenever the shutdown ends, but NYU's Light says it's a different matter for those employed by smaller contractors.

LIGHT: And that's where you would expect to see some pretty significant impacts of even a two-week shutdown - even a week shutdown because the smaller the business, the more likely it is to lay off workers at the first sign that there might be a delay in payment.

WELNA: Take, for example, Celeste Voigt.

CELESTE VOIGT: I have four people who, besides myself, are out of work.

WELNA: Voigt, who's legally blind, has a vending concession to sell hot meals at two federal workplaces in South Dakota. She and all four of her employees have been idled by the shutdown. And she fears they'll be forced to find work elsewhere. Congress, she says, should do something about that.

VOIGT: I think they should reimburse me as a business so that I can pay my employees because I cannot buy insurance, like anybody else, if - this is not a natural disaster. It isn't because I am not responsible enough to run a business or I've done something wrong. It's like I'm getting punished because I'm working, trying to help provide for the government workers that are in the building.

WELNA: According to President Trump, people like Celeste Voigt, who've been idled by the shutdown, may be getting something else - a wall along the Mexican border.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Many of those workers have said to me and communicated stay out until you get the funding for the wall. These federal workers want the wall.

VOIGT: I don't know who he's talking to (laughter). So what am I going to say about that?

WELNA: Again, small federal contractor Celeste Voigt.

VOIGT: Apparently he doesn't understand anytime there's a government shutdown, whatever the reason, it's not appropriate. I guess we're holding ourselves hostage. That's how I feel (laughter).

WELNA: By we, Voigt says she means the entire nation. But she and the thousands of other furloughed federal contractors may be paying the greatest price as this shutdown continues. David Welna, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABE'S "ASGARD")

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