During last month’s government shutdown, the House unanimously passed a bill that would retroactively pay all federal employees for the time lost during the shutdown. The Senate thereafter approved the legislation, which awarded hundreds of thousands of government employees the compensation they deserved while they were forced to stay home due to the shutdown.
While it’s great for those who have been compensated retroactively for their service during the shutdown, the provisions in the aforementioned bill are not applicable to government contractors who put in long, hard hours during the government shutdown. These contractors did a wide range of jobs to keep the government running, including safeguarding computer networks and building military machinery.
Whether or not workers in the private sector continue to work during a shutdown is determined based on many different factors, one of which is how “essential” the government deems their job function. The provisions that have been put in place do not recognize government contractors among those who will be compensated for back pay, so it’s up to independent employers to decide whether they would compensate their employees during this time. Common options for employers are to pay their contractors, allow them to redeem paid leave time, or place them on furlough.
A big part of the reason that government contractors have been excluded from the back pay provision is that they are contracted to only be paid when they actually work. Being put out of work leaves them with no contractual entitlement to compensation because the independent contracting companies aren’t allowed to bill the government when they haven’t actually worked any hours. This is not the case for federal employees, who were able to collect for non-clocked time.
The smaller the contracting company, the more difficult it is to provide compensation for employees during a shutdown. Based on government spending on contracting in 2012, approximately $518 billion was paid to government contractors. That is almost double what the country paid in the mid-1990s (adjusted for inflation). Contractors who are employed to “support. . .members of the armed forces” were compensated under the military-pay bill as per President Obama’s instruction, so at least some government contractors received support. Unfortunately, most contractors whose work benefits government agencies that are outside of the defense branch are left with nothing after the government shutdown.