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Shutdown pain for federal contractors gets more dire by the day

For the estimated 1.2 million contract workers impacted by the shutdown, there's no guarantee of making up lost pay.
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NEW YORK — Michelle Serrano says she’s no stranger to struggling, but she hoped her kids would never have to.

Serrano, a lead security officer at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in lower Manhattan, is among the estimated 1.2 million federal contractors impacted by the ongoing government shutdown. These contractors aren’t getting paychecks— and unlike federal workers, were not included in backpay legislation passed by Congress. Federal contracted workers are employed by a third party companies that have a contract with the federal government.

Because of this, Serrano’s 19 year old daughter will have to sit out this semester of her freshman year at Borough of Manhattan Community College. She’s been “supportive,” Serrano says, “but I want her to continue her education and not stop and have to work just to save enough money to pay for next semester.” Her daughter has also offered to help out with bills, which Serrano says are piling up.

“I feel like I’m back in 10 years ago when I’m struggling, when my kids were younger, and having to live check to check,” Serrano told NBC News Tuesday. “Now I’m going to have to live that way again.” She knows she can pull herself back up, “but do I want to? No. I worked too hard to get to where I’m at."

"I feel like I’m going backwards instead of moving forward and succeeding and doing well for my family,” she said.

Serrano was one of three security officers from the museum that spoke to NBC News about the emotional and financial impact of the shutdown, now the longest in U.S. history.

“Everybody talks about federal workers and they’re going through their plights, their dire situations too, but it’s really dire for us,” said Keith Polite, another security officer at the museum. “We are always going to be behind the eight ball because we have no money as of now coming back to us when we return to work.”

Image: Michelle Serrano
Michelle Serrano, a government contracted security officer at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in New York City, is facing mounting pressure as the government shutdown stretches on.Ned Fridrich / NBC News

All three contract workers said they loved where they worked — and didn’t blame their employer, Allied Universal, for their current predicament.

In a statement to NBC News, Allied said it was “committed to supporting our government security professionals and have offered the Smithsonian security staff vacation buyback for accrued time and furlough letters to help officers who are seeking assistance with bills. In addition, we are actively seeking to place officers looking for alternative work until the government shutdown is over."

The thought of alternative work is an attractive one, but not easily accomplished. The workers can try to apply for other temporary jobs, but it’s difficult when the government could re-open at any time.

“A lot of employers don’t want to invest their time and money into an employee that tomorrow, they could leave,” Polite said. “But the scary part is we don’t know when this is going to end.”

Multiple Democratic senators have proposed a bill to provide back-pay for contract workers like these, but there’s no signal yet it could pass.

Many of the unions representing those kinds of workers have been aggressively pushing the legislation.

“The impact of this needless government shutdown on federal contract workers has been crippling,” said Robert Martinez Jr., president of Machinists Union International, which says it represents 5,000 government contract workers affected by the shutdown. “These families are facing layoffs and missing payments for their mortgages, student loans, school tuition, car loans, health care premiums, daycare and so many other expenses. At the same time, critical government services have been affected.”

Concern for some of these contractors has already expanded into serious health concerns.

Ellen Koonce, another security officer at the museum in New York City, is a recent cancer survivor. But now she’s stressed about the possibility of her health insurance lapsing at the end of January since she hasn’t been working and paying into the system.

“I’ve been wondering how I’m going to get the medication that I need,” she said.

She’s concerned about maintaining treatment for her diabetes, asthma, heart issues, and cancer’s side effects. “I’m trying to see if I can make a miracle work out to see if I can get my medication at the end of this month so it’ll carry over for next month.”

Image: Ellen Koonce
Ellen Koonce, a government contracted security officer at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in New York City, is concerned about the possibility of her health insurance lapsing as the government shutdown continues.Ned Fridrich / NBC News

The possibility of their health insurance expiring on February 1st is “scary,” Serrano added.

“I have a medical procedure coming up and whatever benefits I have, is that going to take care of it? I don’t know where that’s going to go.”

And while lawmakers in Washington continue to debate the details of ending the government shutdown, Serrano is still making a weekly schedule for her fellow security officers at the museum so that when the shutdown finally ends, they’ll be ready.