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Some Members Of Congress Want To Make Sure Contractors Get Backpay


President Trump's announcement that shuttered federal agencies will reopen for three weeks came with another promise.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I will make sure that all employees receive their backpay very quickly or as soon as possible.

KELLY: The president is talking about the 800,000 workers who were furloughed or working without pay during the shutdown. But contract employees far outnumber regular employees in the federal government, and there is no certainty about what will happen to them. Here's NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Greg Hanna is the president of Toeroek Associates, a Colorado-based firm with 60 employees. About two thirds of their business is assessing contamination and liabilities at Superfund sites under contracts with the Environmental Protection Agency. Hanna says its shutdown has hit them hard.

GREG HANNA: If it weren't for having the other part of our business that is not shut down, we would be looking at being very close to bankruptcy.

WELNA: The last thing Hanna wants to do is lay off idled workers. But while the EPA's been shuttered, he's received no payments for hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of invoices for work already performed, and that's left him with a cash flow crunch.

HANNA: What happens is people have vacation time and can, you know, continue to get paid. So you're - still have ongoing payroll expenses that you have to meet, but your cash stream has dried up or, in our case, you know, significantly dwindled.

WELNA: Other federal contractors have been shut down entirely by the shutdown.

CELESTE VOIGT: They don't pay me. I'm a private business owner. I get nothing.

WELNA: Celeste Voigt sells lunches in two federal workplaces in South Dakota that have been shut down. She's had to let all four of her employees go.

VOIGT: You shut your business down, and you leave yourself enough money to start it back up when they decide to open, which doesn't mean I have money to pay my employees. It just means I have enough money to just get it open.


TINA SMITH: Today we are introducing a bill that is called the Fair Compensation For Low-Wage Contractor Act.

WELNA: At the Capitol, Minnesota Democratic Senator Tina Smith rolled out a bill last week in a room filled with furloughed low-wage federal contract workers.


SMITH: What this is about is that every day, people go to work as federal contractors or employees for contractors just like you around this table and around tables all around the country.

WELNA: One of the contractor employees was Audrey Murray.


AUDREY MURRAY: I've worked eight hours for the Smithsonian. I've been furloughed since January 1. I also work for a contractor at the State Department. I am now a single mother. I lost my husband last year. I bought me a house in the process. Ma'am, I'm worried about how I'm going to pay my mortgage.

WELNA: The bill to make whole people like Audrey Murray is backed so far by 14 senators all on the Democratic side of the aisle. Maryland's Chris Van Hollen is one of them.

CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: We're not talking about compensation going to people at high salaries. What it would do in its current form is cap the total reimbursement at people who are making 50,000 a year.

DAVID BERTEAU: Our concern is that it's pretty hard to tell where to draw the line of who deserves this and who doesn't.

WELNA: That's David Berteau. He heads the Professional Services Council, a trade group for federal contractors.

BERTEAU: Within the federal government civilians, there's no cap that says if you make above this level, you don't get your money back. You get your money back at any level at which you were operating for the federal government. We think the same should apply for contract workers who are put in unpaid status.

WELNA: And federal contractor Hanna says while the congressional fix sounds simple, it would effectively be paying contractors for having done nothing.

HANNA: It's not quite clear how those payments would actually work under the procurement rules that we all have to work under. But, I mean, I'm certainly in favor of it if they're able to do it.

WELNA: It's never been done before, but then no other shutdown's hit contractors like this one has. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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