Put Credit: Mitch Ryals

From a small conference room in the Hart Senate Building, Faye Smith is soaking up her new-found celebrity status. Tonight, the Smithsonian security guard and Southeast D.C. native (who now lives in Maryland) is a guest of Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton to the State of the Union Address.

Smith is one of thousands of federal contract workers who are not guaranteed back pay from more than a month of forced furlough. (Federal employees paid directly by the government, meanwhile, can expect their checks.) 

One of the reps for 32BJ SEIU, the labor union that represents Smith, remarks that she looks as if she’s ready for her close up.

“Yeah, just like livin’ in Atlanta,” Smith says with a chuckle. (She used to live in Georgia.) “Tryin’ to be one of the real housewives of Atlanta.”

Smith was invited as Norton’s guest to help promote legislation that would ensure contract workers receive some back pay from work they missed during the 35-day federal government shutdown.

The Senate version has 40 co-sponsors, mostly Democrats and one Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. Fifty Democrats (and no Republicans) co-sponsor the House version.

Smith started gaining attention when a clip of her in tears outside Sen. Mitch McConnell’s office spread around the internet. Smith is a beneficiary of a “Second Chance” rental credit program, and if her rent was even a day late, she would be evicted, she said.

Within a week, someone set up a GoFundMe with a $4,500 goal. (As of this week, people have donated more than $11,000 to Smith.)

Then she appeared on MSNBC’s Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, coining the phrase “Miss Nancy” (referring to Nancy Pelosi) in another video that drew a bunch of eyeballs on Twitter.

“Miss Nancy already told you,” Smith said to President Trump on the show. “She’s not gonna give you the money for the wall.”

Smith, who has become something of a de facto spokesperson for federal contract workers, says people continued to reach out and send her donations. Now, her rent is paid up for four months, and she’s caught up on all her bills.

Yet Smith’s is a rare case. For those less charismatic contract workers, who aren’t now enjoying a little cushion from the generosity of strangers, the financial hardships brought by the longest shutdown in U.S. history endure—people like Lila Johnson.

Johnson, who is sitting across the table from Smith, is Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen’s SOTU guest. She has worked as a custodian in the Department of Agriculture for 20 years and struggled during the shut down to provide for her great grandchildren, who she is raising alone.

Unlike Smith, Johnson says she is still trying to catch up on her late bills. During the shutdown, Johnson blew through what little savings she had and took out a cash advance from her life insurance policy.

“I’m still trying to catch up on all my bills,” she says. “My car note, rent, credit cards, and other smaller ones that I owe. Little by little I’m doing the best I can by catchin’ ‘em up.”

Rather than wait for legislation to pass, the Office of Management and Budget could direct agencies to work with contractors to secure back pay for their employees. Van Hollen and 33 other senators signed onto a letter calling for such action.