Contract Woes

By Christopher Woods

I think it’s safe to say that most people in the Washington DC Metro area work for the federal or local government. These employees can fall into two classes: government employees or contractors. Contractors work for a private organization that has won a contract funded by the government. For example I am a government contractor at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD, but the company that I work for is called Asclepius Solutions. There are pros and cons to this.

As a government contractor you may receive some of the benefits that government employees receive in addition to the benefits that your employer will give you. Government contractors get the same holidays that government employees do. I work on a federal campus so I had to complete a background check and be processed through the federal government and receive a badge. Depending on your clearance level your badge might provide you access to government buildings in addition to your main location. This came in handy for me earlier this year when I went to see the play The Meeting for Black History Month that was held at another government building. I didn’t have to wait in the long visitor line. I just scanned my badge to get in.

There are also travel benefits that come with working on a government project. Many hotels provide government rates that are significantly cheaper than market rates. In order to receive these benefits at the hotel you must show your government ID. These benefits also extend internationally. I was able to take advantage of the government rate when I recently traveled to Barcelona. When you travel specifically for a government project you also receive per diem, which is a stipend to cover your meals while you’re gone. There is a set dollar amount you will receive for breakfast, lunch, and dinner depending on the days you travel and the location. This is money you must receive. Depending on how strict your accounting department is you might be able to pocket some money if your meals aren’t as expensive as per diem allows. Also, you get paid for your travel times, and if you drive you will be reimbursed for your gas plus extra.

Your healthcare and financial benefits as a contractor are handled by your actual employer, but contractors are allowed to take advantage of some financial benefits at credit unions and government banks. Your vacation and sick leave is also separate from the federal government. For example, if there is inclement weather and work is optional for government employees I still might have to report to work. In those situations contractors are at the mercy of their employers.

Full Time Employees (FTE) hourly pay or salaries are included in the contract funds. As long as the contract is funded then the employees on that contract will be paid. During the unfortunate event of a government shutdown, as we saw a few years ago, the government was not paying out to most of their contracts and programs. This means that contractors will not get paid. Government employees receive furlough pay. Contractors do not. During the last furlough my employer was kind enough to allow to use PTO to still get a paycheck, but without the funds from the contract there was no other way for us to be paid until the situation was resolved.

Additionally, contractors have fairly good job security, but that security hinges on the funding of the contract. Contracts are projected to be funded for a set period of time and often have extension periods, but they must still be reviewed every year. Contracts are not guaranteed to be renewed which means a contractor will not have a job if it isn’t.

I have worked on a five year database project. When I was hired the contract was expected to be renewed for another five years. However, while I have been here things have changed, and the contract that employs me is no longer supported like it was before. It is unlikely that my contract will be renewed, but it is still uncertain what will happen. Luckily my supervisor has said if our contract is not renewed he wants to absorb everyone on my team into other projects because he sees us as great assets for him. This is also not a guarantee so my plan is to begin looking for new opportunities in January as our contract end date is June 30, 2017.

I enjoy being a contractor for the reasons I have listed above but am also aware that my employment is at the mercy of the many times fickle government bureaucracy. It is very difficult to fire a government employee while contractors are less expensive to use and are usually much more efficient. Working for a private company does provide some extra benefits and more freedom than a government employee might enjoy. You just have to find the right fit for you.


Photo Credit: Lee Chapman