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

Jan 7, 2019
Originally published on January 8, 2019 7:51 am

Archaeologist Greg Seymour loves his job in the Great Basin National Park, whose 77,100 acres straddle the Utah-Nevada state line. "I'm working on a historic orchard that was planted in the 1880s," he says. "Heirloom trees."

But Seymour, a 62-year-old contractor with the National Park Service, has been out of work since Dec. 22. That's the day funding for the Interior Department and eight other federal departments ran out amid a political standoff between Congress and President Trump over his demand for money to build a wall along the border with Mexico.

"They sent e-mails out letting all of us know that work for them that we're furloughed until further notice," says Seymour.

What's more, Seymour has little hope of being compensated for all the time he's being furloughed from his $35-an-hour job.

Greg Seymour, a 62-year-old contractor with the National Park Service at Great Basin National Park, has been out of work since Dec. 22.
Courtesy Greg Seymour

"I know that the federal employees can get that," he says of the back pay that the 800,000 federal workers who've been idled or are working without pay expect once the shutdown ends. "But in this case, since I don't work, I don't get paid. So I'm out of luck."

And so are many more of the 4.1 million people who New York University federal workforce expert Paul Light estimates work under federal contracts — estimates because, unlike for federal employees, there is no national database tracking the number of contract employees.

"We've got a very large federal workforce with a majority of employees who are not on Uncle Sam's direct payroll," Light tells NPR. "They will not get paid for this unpaid vacation, and I'm not sure how they'll recover if this shutdown continues much longer."

The shutdown has already upended Joe Pinnetti's plans for finishing his bachelor's degree in information technology while working days as an IT contractor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in western Massachusetts. Pinnetti has been unable to perform his $22-an-hour job since the shutdown began.

"It's going to be rough — I'm digging deep into my savings right now," says Pinnetti. "The problem is I'm already having to sacrifice things to do so: I might have to take a semester off from school to rebuild my savings."

Thanks to the shutdown, Pinnetti has effectively joined the ranks of the unemployed. "Like a lot of contractors, I am collecting unemployment as a way to cushion this," he says. "But, you know, it's not enough to really make ends meet when you consider the cost of living, especially in a state like Massachusetts."

The 33-year-old IT specialist expects he'll be able to return to his job as a contract employee once the shutdown ends. But those who work for small firms with federal contracts may well find themselves out of a job.

"That's where you would expect to see some pretty significant impacts of even a two-week shutdown," says NYU's Light, "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."

Celeste Voigt knows how that feels. She has a vending concession for selling hot meals at two federal workplaces in South Dakota, both of which have been idled due to the shutdown.

"I tell them, go file for unemployment," she says of her four employees. "There's nothing else I can do — I mean, I have zero income. The difference between a government worker and me, even though they're not getting paid right now, they will get paid. I will never make up the money that I don't get. I'm just out."

Voigt, who's legally blind, worries her employees may not be coming back if the shutdown continues much longer. "If it takes too long, they're going to look for other jobs. And now I'm going to be stuck with maybe no employees and I have to go back and look for good qualified employees to keep my businesses open. And that's not easy nowadays in this area."

President Trump has asserted that federal workers want the shutdown to continue until Congress provides funding to build a wall along the border. For Voigt, that's a non-starter.

"I don't know who he's talking to," she says with a laugh. "I think 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."

Voigt also has a message for the lawmakers who will have to pass appropriations bills to reopen the shuttered government offices and provide backpay for federal employees.

"I think they should reimburse me as a business so that I can pay my employees," she says. "It isn't that I am not responsible enough to run a business. It's like I'm being punished."

IT specialist Pinnetti, for his part, has no expectation that he and other federal contract workers would be made whole for the days of work they've been forced to miss.

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

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.