'Right now, I'm praying': Meet the workers who risk seeing lost wages from a government shutdown

Willie Price, 63, is still recovering from the last government shutdown that rocked the nation almost five years ago.

If another shutdown happens as soon as this weekend, she said she doesn’t know how she will pay her bills.

“Right now, I'm praying that they don't shut down,” Price said. “But only the ones that's in power can make that happen or not happen.”

Price has worked at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. for more than 40 years as a cook, cashier, barista and in other hospitality roles.

If the nation does enter a government shutdown this weekend, direct federal employees, such as congressional staffers, would be furloughed, but they'd receive backpay once government operations resume.

Price and other subcontracted workers, who are employed by a third party, often never see their lost paychecks. As hourly employees without any work during a shutdown, these workers risk losing all of their income. They could also face losing healthcare coverage or pension contributions from missed hours.

The government will shut down Sunday if lawmakers fail to reach an agreement on crucial spending legislation. Lawmakers could also pass a temporary measure known as a continuing resolution to buy them a few more weeks, a move some members of Congress have already rejected.

A shutdown would impact hundreds of thousands of Americans, between furloughs for federal workers, delayed government benefits and other effects that stretch far beyond Washington.

Lawmakers are at an impasse in the nation's capital, with the right flank of House Republicans insisting on hardline spending cuts that won't have a chance in the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats. House Democrats have started conversations with some moderate Republicans, but it's not clear what those talks could actually accomplish.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., told CNN government shutdowns "bring pain upon Americans who've done nothing wrong to lead us to that moment," but he added that "A shutdown of maybe 10 or 11 or 12 days certainly is different than a shutdown that would span multiple pay periods for federal employees."

But Price told USA TODAY that lawmakers "need to make a decision. They need to think about us, the people that's food service workers, cleaners," Price said.

"The people that take care of the federal workers,” she added.

“When you're living paycheck to paycheck, and then you don't get any money to come in, that's a real struggle. That's a hurtful thing,” Price said.

Across the country, any subcontracted worker for a government vendor would experience this loss, said UNITE HERE Local 23 President Marlene Patrick Cooper. Her union, which represents hospitality workers across the D.C. area, includes more than 600 of these subcontractors.

“Any small amount of missed wages for our members can lead to long term crisis,” Cooper said.

The impact has “quadrupled,” she warned, since the last government shutdown, due to a rising cost of living and lingering effects from the coronavirus pandemic, including lost hours due to closed federal buildings.

"[There] are a lot many more layers than 2019,” Cooper said. “The government just needs to get their act together. They need to do their job for our members who are taxpayers, who are citizens of the area. I mean, our people want to do their job.”

Among those still recuperating from the pandemic’s economic impact, Price said she hopes lawmakers will “sit down and come to a decision” soon.

“It's a lot of tit for tat for no reason," she said. “A lot of people's lives are involved in this.”

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., introduced legislation in the wake of the last government shutdown to provide backpay for contractors and assist those who had fallen behind on bills due to the shutdown that lasted from 2018 into 2019.

Earlier this year, Kaine and fellow Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, also a Democrat, reintroduced this legislation, urging backpay for federal contractors.

"During the government shutdown under President Trump, we spent lots of time with government employees who often broke down crying because they didn’t know how they were going to put food on the table or keep a roof over their family’s heads,” the senators said in a joint press statement at the time.

“Some people in Congress treat government shutdowns or the threat of a debt default like political games, but to federal workers and their families, the consequences can be grim and all too real," they added.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Government shutdown crisis: These workers will go without backpay