WASHINGTON – Her debt was mounting: $156 for the gas bill, $300 for electricity, $2,000 for the mortgage. She could no longer afford her blood pressure pills. But what stung Audrey Murray-Wright most was rationing the groceries.
“I never, ever want to tell my son, 'Don't drink all that milk so you can save your brother some,'” she said, choking up.
Murray-Wright, a cleaning supervisor at the National Portrait Gallery, is one of more than a million federal contract workers nationwide whose income halted when the government partly shuttered for 35 days.
Unlike the 800,000 career public servants who are slated to receive full back pay over the next week or so, the contractors who clean, guard, cook and shoulder other jobs at federal workplaces aren't legally guaranteed a single penny.
They're also among the lowest-paid laborers in the government economy, generally earning $450 to $650 weekly, union leaders say.
And even as they returned to work this week, they were bracing for more pain. President Donald Trump's new deadline for Congress to earmark funding for his proposed border wall is Feb. 15. Agencies could close again if no deal is reached.
Murray-Wright, who lives in Maryland and has worked at Smithsonian properties for 15 years, said seeing her name back on the schedule has brought little relief. After her husband died last year of a heart attack, she has struggled to support her sons, ages 12 and 15.
“I did have a little money in the bank. Now that's all gone,” she said, crying. “I don't have any help. My electricity might be turned off any day now.”
Héctor Figueroa, president of 32BJ SEIU, a labor union that represents 170,000 service workers on the East Coast, said reopening the government is a temporary fix for people on such shaky ground.
“Contracted workers are still in limbo,” he said in an email. “The men and women who clean and secure federal buildings have been living on the edge of disaster for five weeks. Many of these workers are facing eviction, power shut-offs, hunger and even going without lifesaving medications. And unlike direct federal employees, they may never be made whole.”
After the 16-day shutdown in 2013, about 850,000 federal workers collected compensation. About 1,200 cleaners, security guards and food-service workers in the Washington area, received no makeup pay.
A group of Democratic senators introduced a bill last month aimed at changing that. Mark Warner, D-Va., Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, have proposed legislation that would repay contractors up to $965 per week with public money and restore sick days used during the shutdown.
The push for compensation comes at a time when only 4 in 10 Americans say they could cobble together $400 when faced with an emergency expense, according to the latest Federal Reserve data.
Julia Quintanilla, 55, who has worked for the past 27 years as a janitor at the Agriculture Department and other federal agencies, said she cashed in the last of her sick days during the shutdown to keep some income flowing.
Now she's worried she won't be able to care for her mother with dementia without risking her job security.
“Her mental abilities are failing,” she said. “She needs my help.”
Quintanilla lost about $1,000 in savings during the shutdown, tumbled into a similar amount of debt and relied on churches for meals. Her boss told her she's not eligible for back pay, she said.
“They said, “Since you are contract workers, when the government shuts down, you're going to stay home,'” she said. “There is no work.”