Shutdown Struggle: Federally contracted janitors among those hit the hardest

Lila Johnson. (ABC7)

On day seven of the partial government shutdown, 71-year-old Lila Johnson is sharing her story in hopes of putting a face to the struggle that impacted workers are now experiencing.

"I won't be able to pay my bills, it's as simple as that," she said.

Johnson works at the Department of Agriculture as a janitor, cleaning bathrooms on a contract basis. When the shutdown began exactly a week ago, she says it was her supervisor who broke the news.

"He said that we don't report to work until after the shutdown," she said. "We get paid bi-weekly, but as long as the government is shut down we don't have any income coming in. Especially me, because I don't have vacation time, I don't have leave time. The little leave time I had, I already used that up."

And because she is a federally contracted employee, Johnson likely won't get the back pay that Congress typically provides to federal workers once a shutdown is over.

Government contractors are paid through third party companies, and those companies can't charge the government for services that aren’t provided during a shutdown.

"We're not going to get paid and we can't get that money back," said Johnson.

According to a spokesperson for 32BJ SEIU, the labor union representing property service workers has about 2,000 federally contracted property service workers now in that position. Johnson is one of them.

Most of them are janitors, cafeteria servers, and security officers. Many have second jobs. All of them live paycheck to paycheck and can’t afford an interruption in their modest pay.

"My last paycheck from my job will be for 16 hours coming up this Tuesday," said Johnson. "And so far there is no telling when they're going to open the government back up."

Johnson previously spent 30 years working as a janitor at George Washington University. She retired from that job in 2009, and now gets a pension and social security. But she says that retirement income just isn't enough to pay her bills - which is why she still works at the Department of Agriculture.

She's held that job for more than two decades.

"The reason why I'm working is to make ends meet, so that I won't be completely broke," she said. "This is why I'm so frustrated, because I need to work in order to pay these bills."

The mounting bills include rent on her apartment in Hagerstown, her car payment, car insurance, utilities, and more.

"I don't want the repo people to come in and take my car back," she said. "I won't be able to put food on the table for my two great grandkids."

She says that's the real impact of the government shutdown. And she hopes Congress and the President are listening.

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