WASHINGTON – Furloughed federal workers will be compensated for the time they spent working without pay, thanks to a bill sponsored by Maryland’s senators and signed into law Wednesday by President Donald Trump.
The bill, sponsored by Maryland Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin and co-sponsored by Maryland Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen and dozens of other senators, became the first of the 116th Congress to pass through both the House and the Senate on Jan. 11.
But Cardin and Van Hollen weren’t celebrating at the time of the signing. Instead, they sat with fellow Democratic Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota around a table with federal security guards and janitorial workers in a discussion about the effects of the shutdown on contract workers.
While the bill the president signed Wednesday afternoon promises back pay to federal furloughed employees, it offers nothing to government contractors who were told to not show up to work in December.
Before the meeting started, Smith announced another bill she is sponsoring that would aid “folks that a lot of people don’t see” like cafeteria workers and Smithsonian Institution museum security guards
Hosting the second round table talk with furloughed employees, Van Hollen said he wanted to give those contractors a voice and show how the shutdown situation is getting worse for Maryland and District of Columbia residents.
“The consequences of the shutdown are having an increasingly harmful and damaging effect every day around our country,” Van Hollen said.
Although a few jokes popped up into the discussion, most of the meeting had a somber tone as affected workers told their stories to the senators and the press.
Smithsonian Institution security worker Tamela Worthen of Prince George’s County, Maryland, said that she hasn’t had access to her diabetes medication in a week since she’s been unable to pay any associated costs. Worthen cited religion as one of the factors keeping her strong despite financial constraints.
“But, you still got to deal with reality,” Worthen noted. “With the creditors, they don’t want to hear nothing about faith in God and stuff like that.”
A self-described “workaholic not a sit-around-at-home-aholic,” Worthen said she and other furloughed workers at the meeting are seeking to reestablish a way to provide for their families.
“I want the government to open again so I can get back to work,” said Maria Marquez through a translator, while holding her son, Oscar, in her arms.
Audrey Murray-Wright is a single mother who lost her husband of 27 years and works two jobs to support her family. She said they rely on her to be a provider. She has worked at the Smithsonian for 18 years and the State Department for 27 years.
“I leave my house in the dark and I come back in the dark,” said Murray-Wright, tearing up. “And now I can’t work.”
In the past weeks since the shutdown started, Cardin has repeatedly appeared on the Senate floor to urge his colleagues to end the shutdown. Together with Van Hollen, he has also sent multiple letters to the president’s office urging the same, and both have spread further concerns on Twitter.
“I just sent @realDonaldTrump a letter asking that he listen to the stories of those suffering under his #shutdown,” Cardin tweeted Tuesday. “But he needs to hear directly from you. To all those impacted, to our federal workers – share your #ShutdownStories here. Help us put an end to this chaos.”
“As the shutdown continues, our federal workers shouldn’t face losing their homes or defaulting on their student loans because @SenateGOP are taking orders from the President instead of the people they represent,” Van Hollen tweeted.
Smith also weighed in on Twitter with a personal tie-in: “The human toll of Trump’s shutdown is very real. Derek, a Farmington air traffic controller, wrote me, ‘It is quite ridiculous that an air traffic controller would be affected by political games. Take us off the bargaining table.’ Couldn’t agree more. #EndTheShutdown.”
Van Hollen also left Capitol Hill on Friday to meet with other federal employees affected by the shutdown in Silver Spring on Jan. 11.
In addition to the legislation and meetings to push for an end to the longest government shutdown in history, Van Hollen is refusing to accept his paychecks, according to a WBAL radio news report .
Besides Van Hollen, CNN reports more than 70 federal lawmakers are foregoing pay during the shutdown, including Maryland Reps. Dutch Ruppersberger and David Trone, both Democrats.
Looking to the future, Cardin is teaming up with Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, to try to create legislation that will guarantee back pay on a more permanent basis in case of future shutdowns, according to the Washington Business Journal.