When a government shuts down, it’s not just federal workers who feel the impact. Working daily alongside thousands of federal employees are federal contractors, people who aren’t full-fledged employees.
When a shutdown occurs, contractors are told to stay home. Unlike their counterparts who are federal employees, there’s no chance of back pay for the hours they miss on the job.
Jessica Cohen is a contractor who provides support for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Pittsburgh. She joined Marketplace’s Amy Scott to talk about what a shutdown means to her. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Amy Scott: So I should note we are talking on Friday, it’s late afternoon on the East Coast and we’re still waiting to see if the government will shut down. How are you feeling?
Jessica Cohen: I’m definitely anxious. Being a contractor, I won’t get a paycheck because, at least for our contract, we can only bill for hours worked. So if the government shuts down, all of our work will have to stop, which means we don’t have the opportunity to get retroactive pay.
Scott: So unlike federal employees, they might get furloughed and get paid later, but you would just miss out on that pay entirely?
Cohen: Correct. That just disappears for us.
Scott: Are most of the co-workers in your office on contract?
Cohen: I’d say right now it’s split because we are still under a hiring freeze. So we haven’t been able to replace the employees that have left us over the last year.
Scott: What’s the mood been like at work with this looming?
Cohen: I don’t think people are talking about it much. There doesn’t seem to be a ton of alarm because we’ve had so many continuing resolutions. I think everyone thinks it just will pass through again. This one is kind of scaring me.
Scott: Yeah, how would it affect you personally? I mean, I suppose it depends how long it lasts, but do you have savings to get through?
Cohen: Yeah, I mean, I personally have been saving for things such as this. But I don’t know. My son is on CHIP, and that’s the only support I get from the government. So it’s like, I still have rent and student loans and car payments and bills, so it can’t last forever.
Scott: I think we hear your son in the background. He’s about 1 year old, is that right?
Cohen: Yes, that is him.
Scott: So, you’re talking about CHIP, the federal health insurance program for children whose parents don’t qualify for Medicaid but still need some assistance. That program, of course, has been in the balance with these budget negotiations. How have you been planning for what to do if CHIP lapses?
Cohen: Well, we keep up to date with the doctor’s appointments and just trying to keep in communication. We have plans for “what if?” but they’re obviously not plans that I would like to resort to other than CHIP. But we are one of the lucky ones that he doesn’t have health problems. But I know that will affect many other kids that are on CHIP.
Scott: I just want to end with one question for you. All this uncertainty must be difficult in terms of planning for the near future.
Cohen: Yeah, very much so. I’m not, I’ll be nervous to check my phone and see what’s happening.
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