By Clarissa Olivarez
6:00 AM EDT, October 14, 2013
In a city where government contracts make up a multi-billion dollar industry, it is surprising that with the exception of a couple of articles that received moderate attention, the mainstream media has largely ignored the impact of the shutdown on federal contractors.
There has never been much sympathy for contractors. On average, we make more money than federal workers because we normally do not have the advantage of affordable health care and/or other benefits offered by the federal government to its direct employees. As a contractor, my colleagues and I work 40 hours a week, and our company bills the government for the services we each provide. On Oct. 1, however, the federal government furloughed many of its employees, which meant that funding for contracts under certain agencies was halted. Once contractors are ordered to stop work by their contracting officer, they must comply and wait patiently at home while Congress and the White House try to find a solution.
While defense contractors are mostly still in business, since their services are considered "essential," there are thousands of others who were sent home without pay for an indefinite period of time. As a technical writer and communications specialist for a small company that supports a non-defense agency, my fate was sealed long before early media reports warned of many more impending furloughs.
When you are sent home from work for over a week, you begin to notice certain things around you that could cause you to lose heart. In my own neighborhood, I have noticed several cars parked in their driveways — cars that never leave in the mornings for work and never leave in the evening for a night on the town. The Metro parking garages are empty. People's morale is diminishing as cabin fever sets in on all sides. And as rumors of the shutdown continuing until the 17th spread like wildfire in a windstorm, my colleagues and I seem to have exhausted every resource.
Many of my co-workers have emailed several government websites only to find an automated reply shoot back at them stating that the government was shut down and there was nobody who could address their concerns. We have written letters to congressmen and spoken with local news anchors, but nothing is being done to help us in our time of need. As contractors, we inhabit a different world, and unlike furloughed federal employees, we will not be reimbursed for the time off we have been forced to take.
Unfortunately, like everyone else, there are many of us who owe student loans and are expected to pay rent. We have to pay for utilities, credit card bills, dog food and any other necessities like food and clothing. To make matters worse, my husband and I had set aside money in our savings account for a vacation later this month. That money is now going toward bills and other unforeseen expenses.
What does all this mean? An article in The Washington Post recently reported that the shutdown could amount to a loss of $200 million a day for local businesses throughout the city. Contractors provide as much of their income to local businesses as their federal counterparts. If it is not enough that we are suffering as a group, our non-existent income will now begin to hurt certain sectors of the economy.
Small businesses within the city have been doing their part to ease the financial burdens of furloughed employees by advertising "Shutdown Specials" that would at least partially allow for the small-business sector of the economy to avoid an otherwise severe financial blow. But, with a heavy concentration of federal and non-federal patrons, the shutdown could cripple numerous mom-and-pop establishments as workers save their hard-earned money and guard their savings due to the uncertainty of a future paycheck.
Contractors, especially those contractors who work for small businesses, have been hit hard by this shutdown, and it is important that we do not go unheard. Representatives in Congress need to realize that they have only solved half of the problem by passing a bill to reimburse federal employees for time spent at home. While the government will probably not take ownership of the effects it has produced on contractors, it is critical that they remember that we are an essential part of the federal workforce and many of us are weighed down by similar worries.
Clarissa Olivarez lives in Hyattsville. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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