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Not Expecting Backpay, Federal Contractors Feel Shutdown Pinch

Photo of U.S. Capitol.
Nicole Nixon / KUER
The partial government shutdown has dragged on since Dec. 22 as negotiations over a border wall between lawmakers and the president are at a standstill.

For 30 years, Steve Bryant has worked as a cartography contractor — a map maker — for the National Forest Service.

“We make the maps that people buy in the visitors’ centers,” he said. “The visitor maps and the topographic maps — everything within the Forest Service boundary.”

The Draper resident is one of potentially millions of federal workers who have been affected by the partial government shutdown. He’s furloughed and hasn’t worked since Dec. 21. He’ll miss his first paycheck on Friday.

But as a federal contractor, Bryant doesn’t expect backpay when the shutdown ends. He’ll miss his first paycheck on Friday and bills — including life insurance, car insurance, utilities and a tractor payment — will start to pile up next week.

There’s no database tracking federal contractors, so no one knows exactly how many there are. But one expert estimates more than 4 million people work under federal contracts.

Should the shutdown drag on long-term, Bryant’s biggest worry is health insurance. With no payments from the Forest Service during the shutdown, the Denver-based company he works for may not be able to afford health insurance for all of its employees.

“That’s one of my big concerns because I’m 60 years old, have health issues, and I’m certainly not going to get health insurance anywhere else,” Bryant said.

His company will pay for health insurance for furloughed contractors through the end of the month, but if the shutdown drags into February he’ll have to pay about $800 out-of-pocket, a price he says “isn’t bad” considering the benefits included in his insurance plan.

Bryant blames President Donald Trump for the shutdown and believes he’s holding the government hostage to get the border wall he campaigned on. Another federal contractor, Adele Underwood, agrees and said she has mixed feelings over the shutdown.

“I obviously want to get paid and do my job,” said Underwood, who does environmental restoration in Missoula, Mont. “But I also would rather have a shutdown than a wall.”

She points out the ecological damage that a wall would cause by disrupting migration patterns and upsetting habitat.

Bryant’s wife is retired and the two are carefully budgeting while he’s furloughed.

“We’re looking at our finances closely and thinking, ‘what can we cut?’” he said. “No dinner, no movies. If it goes on any farther, you start thinking, ‘Do you really need cable?’”

While some contractors will take advantage of unemployment benefits, Bryant doesn’t think it’s worth the effort.

“That’s a lengthy process,” he said. “It’s not like you go on furlough and you get a paycheck the next week from them.”

KUER's Judy Fahys contributed to this report.

Nicole Nixon holds a Communication degree from the University of Utah. She has worked on and off in the KUER Newsroom since 2013, when she first joined KUER as an intern. Nicole is a Utah native. Besides public radio, she is also passionate about beautiful landscapes and breakfast burritos.
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