“So you cannot keep America great, make America great when you strike at the very heart of what makes this country great, what keeps us running,” said Democratic Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.
Pressley is on a mission to pay government workers $1 billion in back wages.
She's been fighting for them since being sworn into Congress during the longest government shutdown in US history. That battle over President Trump's border wall ended 10 months ago. But for thousands of service workers, its effects live on.
Pressley is a member of the so-called “Squad,” a group of progressive, first-term congresswomen. And she's made back pay a signature issue. For federal workers, worrying that their next paycheck may not come has become a regular event.
The federal government delayed another potential shutdown over the border wall on November 21st by passing a short-term funding bill. It's good through December 20th. But even temporary fixes like this are problematic for workers.
“There is a social cost, there is a human toll, there is a trauma that comes from this,” Pressley said in a sit-down interview with Business Insider Today.
Last winter, just before Christmas, most government workers went without pay for more than a month when Congress didn't approve billions of dollars for President Trump's border wall.
People protested from city streets to the halls of the Capitol where some were arrested. Across the country they lined up for free food and household goods, many struggled to pay their bills, and some found themselves on the verge of financial ruin.
And with another possible shutdown on the horizon, Pressley is pushing for Congress to help those contractors. “They are who keep this building and this place humming,” she explained. “And there should not be a hierarchy when it comes to the dignity and the value of work.”
It's something Pressley understands personally. She's now walking the halls of Congress in her stilettos, but that wasn't always the case.
“I was a hotel worker for six years and I know what it is when people look over you and look through you. And that is what has compelled me to fight so hard for service industry employees specifically,” Worthen said.
There's no official count of how many federal contractors there are across the country. Estimates range from hundreds-of-thousands to millions. Many are low-wage jobs like cafeteria workers, custodians, and security guards.
In a February op-ed, she highlighted the challenges of one of them: Tamela Worthen.
“I would tell those people that think that government jobs, federal jobs are safe, secure. I would tell them rethink that again because everything is not secure.” Worthen, a security guard for the Smithsonian added.
“They need to wake up to reality.”
During the shutdown, Worthen joined members of her union in protest at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's office.
Standing in the halls of Congress, she was frank.
“It ain't fair for the president to hold everybody hostage. And you know, in other words, one man's decision is everybody's pain,” Worthen said.
As she sits in her living room and reflects on last winter, Worthen is somber.
“It stressed me out,” but that was just the tip of the iceberg. “It turns your world upside down. Turned mine upside down,” Worthen said.
Like well over half of Americans, Worthen lives paycheck-to-paycheck, and missing one week's salary is crippling. She missed five.
“I wasn't able to get my diabetic medicine,” she said. “I think at that time it was going on like three weeks.”
That led to her getting much worse. “I even pretty much wound up in the hospital because of that,” Worthen said.
Worthen struggled financially before the shutdown and Washington's actions compounded her troubles.
She's behind on medical bills, her mortgage, and her car loan. She says her credit score plummeted 200 points.
Now she's back at work. And she took a second job.
“I get off five in the morning, come home, let the dogs out, change my clothes into the other uniform and I get back to work and then I sleep in the car 'till about like 9:20, something like that.” Her schedule doesn't leave much time for rest. “I'm getting maybe like four hours of sleep,” Worthen said.
Worthen takes her time when describing her frame of mind. “I feel, because I'm 56 years old, I shouldn't have to be working two jobs. I should be able to just work one job to take care of everything. And I could just be more at peace knowing that this job is solid.”
Rep. Pressley empathizes with her and other federal contractors. “I remain acutely uncomfortable, sobered by the stories that I hear every day that I carry with me so that I never grow complacent,” Pressley stressed.
She's been on the case since her first days in office.
Pressley sponsored the back pay bill in January and it passed the House in June. It's been stalled in the Senate ever since.
Senator McConnell's office refused to answer Business Insider Today's questions about the status of the bill. The Congressional Budget Office estimates it would cost $1 billion.
“I know that sounds like such a huge number, but at the end of the day, this is not charity. We're not fighting for this out of sheer benevolence. This is about reciprocity,” Pressley said.
Tamerla Worthen's grateful to have the representative as an advocate. “I think that I have nothing but to take my hat off to her,” Worthen said.
One of the harshest critics of the president didn't come to Washington expecting this would be her first piece of legislation. But now, thousands of federal contractors are relying on her.
“There should be nothing partisan about taking care of these hardworking employees who are amongst some of our most vulnerable,” Pressley asserted. “These workers are the backbone for their families, in our communities, over our economy.”