I went to the movie theater, showed my work ID with the green stripe, and got my free popcorn.
One of the theater chains was giving away free popcorn to furloughed federal employees. The green stripe on my work ID means I'm a government contractor. I work on-site at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention but I'm not actually employed by the federal agency.
I love my job. What I don't love is the furlough that affected thousands of government workers for more than two weeks. There's been a lot of discussion about putting federal benefits in jeopardy and the potential hit to the economy. But I think there's a furlough story that isn't being told. It's the story of contractors like me.
Most people wouldn't be able to tell I'm a contractor and not a federal employee, or "FTE," as we call them. FTE stands for full-time equivalent. (If you work for the government, you've got to learn the acronyms.) Often people think of contractors as people who work for the military. But we serve other roles, including office staffing, IT, and so on. According to the Washington Post, the government spent more than $510 billion on government contracting in 2012.
Federal employees who were forced to stay home will receive back pay, but many staffing contractors like me won't. I only get paid when I work. The company I work for bills the CDC for my time. The only way I would have gotten paid for any time during the furlough was if I used my paid time off. Looking at the length of the furlough and the math, the only way that would work would be if I hadn't used any of my time off all year. Had the shutdown lingered, I would have filed for unemployment. Been there, done that several times. In the end I chose not to file and kept my fingers crossed that the government would reopen.
I work with wonderful, highly-capable scientists. I'm well-respected and I know my skills are valued by my team. I chose to be a government contractor. I understand the pros and cons — and the ones I didn't know I'm certainly learning now.
My friends and colleagues who are FTEs will receive back pay from the furlough. The rationale is that they would have been working if the shutdown hadn't happened. Well, I would have been working too. Bah humbug. OK, so chalk that up to being a contractor. I get it. No back pay.
What I don't follow is back pay when there wasn't any work being done. Staff at CDC and across the government who worked during the furlough absolutely, positively deserve to be paid as soon as possible. But to give back pay when there wasn't any work being done doesn't make much sense. Yet work would have taken place if there was no shutdown. And on and on. It's a classic catch-22.
There are a lot of contractors like me who work on-site at the CDC's facilities, though I don't know the exact number. My educated guess is we're talking about more than a thousand people — maybe several thousand, all of whom won't be receiving their usual paychecks. And the CDC is pretty small as some government agencies go. I assume other branches of the government across the country have contractors who work under the same arrangement. On Oct. 10, the Huffington Post reported that more than 15,000 non-government employees would not receive back pay.
Just because I chose not to use my vacation days or file for unemployment doesn't mean that I'm rolling in dough. It's been a rough year financially. I had several major expenses this year that I didn't see coming and which cost many thousands of dollars. Life just does that and it hasn't been pretty. I've been through much worse. I have some important things I need to take care of that will have to wait until next year. It will take me longer to pay some bills, but it will be OK.
I won't get paid for the hours I'm working now through the end of October until around mid-November. That's how payroll works at my company. My mortgage is due on November 1 and there's a big stack of other bills. I'll juggle some things around and it will be OK.
The same can't be said for many other contractors. Two women who work in my building are contractors. Both are single mothers with multiple children each. Before the furlough, I heard one of them talking about how it's going to be a very lean holiday. I've been hearing stories about people calling their landlords and mortgage companies to ask for extensions, and contractors who used up their paid vacation to care for sick kids. Or consider the younger contractors at CDC, many of whom have advanced degrees and have substantial student loans to pay off.
I wish I could tell you a sad story about how I can't pay my mortgage or that my power might get turned off. I can't. I used the furlough to take advantage of the city I call home. But I know there are a lot of other employees like me who are hurting. I hope that by the time you read this, I'm back at work. In the meantime, I suggest that, if you come across a government contractor who's been furloughed, to treat them to a movie or a drink. Or both. There are a lot of us, and we deserve it.
The writer is a government contractor who works at the CDC.
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