Leslie Clark is tired of the whiplash.
As a government shutdown loomed in September, she dreaded being sent home without pay from her custodial job at the FBI’s Washington Field Office. Even a short stretch without work would have meant deciding between her medication and groceries, mortgage and bills.
The 11th-hour vote by lawmakers to avert the crisis brought temporary relief. But another deadline for congressional action is days away, and Clark is again weighing the painful cuts she’ll have to make if a shutdown leaves her without income.
“It’s the same thing year after year after year,” said Clark, who has held her job for more than two decades. “I want them to think of us as people - the people who are out there working to support their family. To snatch that away is unfair.”
Thousands of federally contracted service workers like Clark are facing the same uncertainties as Congress, for the second time in six weeks, brushes up against a deadline for passing critical funding legislation.
These workers are some of the lowest paid employees in and around government, typically earning between about $17 and $25 an hour as janitors, cooks, cashiers, catering workers and security guards, according to the unions that represent them. Most are Black or Latino, and many live paycheck-to-paycheck.
The limbo they face highlights a stark disparity in the way the government treats career public servants and the laborers who perform the often unglamorous work that keeps their offices running. Federal employees who are furloughed or forced to work without pay during a shutdown are guaranteed by law to receive backpay for their missed wages. Contract workers have no such protections, making them especially vulnerable to the fiscal brinkmanship that has become one of Congress’s defining features.
More than 200 such employees provide hospitality services to lawmakers and their staffs in the U.S. Capitol Complex, according to union leaders. Several thousand others perform similar duties in federal buildings in Washington and beyond.
Many have held their positions for years or even decades, saying they like the job security and the prestige of working in the hub of government, where they often build personal relationships with the officials they serve. Some were trapped in the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, hunkering down beside lawmakers when rioters loyal to Donald Trump ransacked the building.
Losing work for even a couple weeks can exact an immediate and long-lasting financial toll on these employees. After the last shutdown, which began in late 2018 and lasted 35 days, some workers spent months repaying personal loans they took out to cover their expenses. Now, they’re dealing with the added pressures of post-pandemic inflation and higher interest rates.
“There are a lot of long-term problems that are compounding, one after another, that our members are not able to dig out of,” said Marlene Patrick-Cooper, president of UNITE HERE, the union that represents Capitol Hill hospitality workers. “Any small amount of missed wages can lead to further crisis.”
To avoid a shutdown, Congress must by Nov. 17 either pass another stopgap spending bill or figure out a way to fully fund the government for the next fiscal year. The ouster of Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as House speaker and the protracted fight over his successor have increased the odds that lawmakers will run out of time.
A group of mostly far-right conservatives provided the deciding votes to remove McCarthy last month, in part because he passed a short-term funding bill with Democratic support over objections from GOP hard-liners. The newly elected speaker, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.), has until the end of the week to broker an agreement.
Supporting a family on minimum wage
In previous shutdowns, unions helped their members file for unemployment. They raised money for families in need and gave out gift cards to reduce some of the financial stress. Union leaders say they’ll continue offering that kind of support in another shutdown.
Eva Flores, a janitor at the Food and Drug Administration, said she’d have no choice but to turn to others for assistance if she were sent home without pay.
She makes slightly more than minimum wage dusting the agency’s hallways and cleaning its bathrooms, leaving little wiggle room in her budget at the end of each pay period. Rent on the townhouse she shares with her two boys in Laurel, Md., is more than $1,700, and she’s the sole earner.
To prepare, Flores, 47, has been slowly stocking up on groceries. If she loses work, she expects to borrow money. She could also save some cash, she said, by canceling her cable service or, if necessary, putting her car payments on hold, even if it means her credit rating taking a hit.
Her biggest concern, however, is the possibility of losing her benefits in a prolonged shutdown.
Flores was hospitalized for nearly three weeks in 2020 for a blood clot in her left leg. Doctors initially told her she had a 50-50 chance of losing the limb, she said. She was spared after two surgeries.
She never misses a dose of the blood thinners or cholesterol medications she must now take to stay healthy. With insurance, those are capped at $45 a month. Without the coverage, she doubts she’ll be able to afford the pills by herself. (Her employer, Crico Enterprise, didn’t respond to a request for comment on whether her benefits would lapse during a shutdown.)
“I always depend on my medication,” Flores said. “Imagine if I don’t have my insurance.”
‘Nobody’s got us covered’
When Bonita Williams thinks about a shutdown, her mind immediately goes to her 1o grandchildren.
The 61-year-old cleans bathrooms and offices at the State Department. When she’s not there, she’s often spending time with her younger grandkids at her apartment in Landover, Md. She likes to keep her kitchen stocked with their favorite snacks - popcorn, juice, different flavors of ice cream.
She won’t be able to afford any of that if her paychecks stop coming. “I’d be so sad and hurt,” said Williams, who has been in her job for 16 years. “They’d come over and be like, ‘Grandma, can I have this,’ and I’d have to tell them no.”
Rent and bills would also be a struggle, she said. And she worries about whether food banks would have enough stock to help everyone in need.
“Nobody’s got us covered,” Williams said. “It’s easy for the House and Senate to go back and forth with all this nonsense about shutting down the government when they don’t have a worry in the word.”
Leslie Clark, the FBI janitor, was a few years into her job, earning a little more than minimum wage, when she got an unexpected windfall. Someone was buying the building where she lived, and she qualified for relocation assistance.
Clark bought a three-bedroom attached home in Landover, Md., for herself and her two children. “That was my dream” she said, “and I finally got it.”
That was more than 15 years ago. Now, somehow, it feels as hard as ever to make ends meet. She struggles to afford her insulin. Grocery prices are sky high. The commute to work has risen to $8 each way.
Clark, 53, was one of the lucky ones in the last shutdown. Parts of the government were already funded, so she got to keep working. This time, her fate is unclear. Losing hours would make it impossible to cover all her expenses, she said. She could try borrowing money, but that would mean taking on more debt.
Another option that she has yet to rule out: putting the home she loves on the market and downsizing.
“At the rate things are going, I might have to,” she said. “It’s hard to plan when you don’t know what’s going to happen.”