Our nation’s workforce includes hundreds of thousands of federal contract workers who perform essential work for the nation — in industries such as janitorial and security, waste management, laundry, equipment maintenance, natural resource work and customer service in call centers — yet many of these essential workers don’t know if they’ll be able to pay their rent next month, or even if they’ll have a job if the contract changes hands.
On his third day in office, President Joe Biden took action to address the crisis of low-paid work and to have the backs of workers who organize to fix it. He started with the federal government itself: His executive order, “Protecting the Federal Workforce,” reinstated collective bargaining rights for direct federal employees and committed to move toward a $15 an hour minimum wage and expanded paid leave for contracted workers. “If we act now,” he said, starting a 100-day time clock, “we will be better able to meet our moral obligations to each other as Americans.”
Biden needs to proceed with urgency to increase the contractor minimum wage, but also to revoke dangerous Trump-era actions that excluded some workers from that wage and allowed new contractors to replace current workers when they take over a contract.
Since announcing the proposal to raise worker wages, federal agencies have been moving on their contracting plans. In just two months, they logged more than 44,000 service contract actions that may lock in current conditions for workers, and while 19 percent will be performed in states with minimum wages higher than the $10.95 that federally contracted workers are promised now, elsewhere federally contracted workers could be looking at years — sometimes a decade — of continued struggles to survive on low wages. This is particularly troubling because much of the contracted-out work is in industries with significant Black, Latinx and female workforces where wealth gaps remain vast.
These are workers like Trinity Davis in Hattiesburg, Miss., who earns $13 an hour taking calls from Medicare beneficiaries, who says, “Your gas bill is your gas bill; your rent, your car, your insurance all is what it is, you can’t negotiate that. Where do you take the fall? It’s in your food.”
Or like Ty Wheeler, a recreation worker making $12 an hour at Yellowstone National Park who was excluded from the minimum wage by President Donald Trump, notes, “For some of my colleagues, 15 dollars would be the difference between making rent and ending up in the lines at the food bank.”
Or like Matt Langford, an aircraft mechanic on a naval base and a Machinists Union member, who has seen the contract he works on change hands four times in the past 17 years. When incumbent workers’ right of first refusal on job offers from a new contractor was revoked, he says, “it seriously weakened our bargaining position with the new contractor. The morale of the workforce is low, anxiety is high, and the incoming contractor is using these fears to take away hard-earned benefits we have bargained for over years.”
These workers and many thousands like them are doing important federal work right now, but as the ink dries on each new contract they stand to miss out on the president’s promised reforms. He recognized that making these good jobs was a win for everyone: Committed and knowledgeable people stay on the job, the public receives the best federal services possible, and workers’ lives are improved.
These are the moral obligations we have to one another, and contracted workers are meeting their part of the deal. We urge Biden to finalize his minimum wage increase, to make sure that all contracted workers who provide services and goods receive it, and to stand by them when a new contractor takes over. The workers cannot wait.
Rebecca Dixon is executive director of the National Employment Law Project.
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