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Maria Bernal de Navarrette cleans a statue of Alexander Hamilton, a Founding Father of the United States, in Rotunda on Capitol Hill in Washington October 15, 2013.
Maria Bernal de Navarrette cleans a statue of Alexander Hamilton, a Founding Father of the United States, in Rotunda on Capitol Hill in Washington October 15, 2013.
Joshua Roberts—Reuters

Donna Kelly doesn’t know how she will pay for her medicine.

The 63-year-old federally contracted security officer at Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C., was already living paycheck to paycheck before the shutdown began on Dec. 22. Now, after being out of work since her museum ran out of funds on New Year’s Day, Kelly is trying to secure unemployment checks and food stamps. And she’s returning to Medicaid.

“For me, it’s a life or death situation,” says Kelly, who regularly takes medicine for high blood pressure and back pain. “I need my finances to get my medicine.”

But her situation only grows more untenable. Thousands of federally contracted workers like Kelly have historically received no back pay following a government shutdown. That means Kelly’s paycheck isn’t delayed — it likely will never come.

Of the more than 800,000 federal workers working without pay or on furlough amid this partial government shutdown, contract workers are in a particularly precarious place. Without back pay to look forward to at the end of this 19-day shutdown, contracted workers are squeezed into an unforgiving financial spot, forcing them to make sacrifices and dip into their savings — if any — to make ends meet for the foreseeable future.

“The vast majority are paycheck to paycheck,” says Hector Figueroa, president of 32BJ SEIU, a union that represents 2,000 federally contracted workers along the East Coast. “They don’t have an accumulation of savings or assets that they can rely on or borrow money to make payments. This is really terrible.”

Federally contracted workers who spoke with Money say they are worried about having enough cash to pay off credit card bills, rent, loans, childcare expenses, electricity bills, and healthcare premiums. Most of these federally contracted employees are janitors, security guards, food service employees, and at least 2,500 of them are furloughed with the likelihood that they will not receive any form of back pay. The shutdown — spurred on by the conflict over funding for President Donald Trump’s border wall proposal — could become the longest in history if it continues past Saturday.

Some employees like Kelly, who makes just over minimum wage, don’t have savings or a safety net to fall back on. Without work and income, Kelly says she’s unable to pay for her health insurance and is worried about putting food on the table. She also has car payments and phone bills — though she has found relief in her subsidized housing during this financially strenuous time. It’s unclear when or if she could receive any of the federal assistance she has applied for.

“I’m trying not to worry but, by the same token, I feel kind of uneasy and stressed out,” Kelly says. “I’m not feeling good about this at all.”

Devon Russell, a 30-year-old security officer at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C., has also filed for unemployment and is still waiting to hear back. Without work for more than a week now, Russell says he worries about how he will make rent and how the lack of pay will impact his credit score.

“Not getting paid at all, it really affects you because you’re forced to figure out where you’re going to be getting these funds from. It’s a big inconvenience,” Russell, whose last day of work was New Year’s Day, says. “I’m sacrificing right now.”

Russell, who has worked at the museum for nearly three years, typically earns between $530 and $670 a week, depending on whether he works overtime. For now, his girlfriend, who works as a mail carrier, is tasked with providing support for their family as the shutdown continues. Federally contracted employees and union leaders say they don’t see an end in sight.

“In this current situation, the length becomes formidable,” Figueroa, the union president, says. “We don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel, which means going into next week will be a disaster for these workers.”

Keith Polite, a 55-year-old security officer at the Smithsonian, never imagined a shutdown of this length could occur. Like Kelly and Russell, Polite was still working with pay until New Year’s Day. He initially felt secure working at a federal site, but now he suddenly finds himself scrambling to make ends meet.

“I’m going to have to tap into my 401(k) and then get penalized for taking money out of it, or I’m going to have to tap into the little bit of savings that I have for a rainy day and use that — even though it’s not my fault,” Polite says.

These employees and the unions that represent them are working to find a solution. Today, union members, politicians, and supporters gathered in Washington, D.C., to protest the government shutdown. Union leaders are trying to work with agencies that employ these contracted workers and members of Congress to secure back pay for them when the shutdown ends.

“I know we’re contracted employees, but if you work on a federal site, you should have the same rights,” Polite says. “We’re left out in the cold.”

Last week, a group of senators, led by Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota, announced that they plan to introduce a bill that would provide back pay for federally contracted employees. A few days later, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a freshman Congresswoman from Massachusetts, wrote a letter to Congressional leaders urging them to grant back pay for them when the shutdown comes to a close.

Even so, workers feel helpless as the politicking around the shutdown continues each day — further separating them from their work and their income.

“We feel like we are hostage,” Figueroa, the union president, says. “The negotiation is happening with not much hope or trust that those who are holding us hostage want us to be free.”

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