The federal government employs more workers making less than $15 an hour than any other employer in the US, a new report has revealed. The study, compiled by pro-union group Good Jobs Nation, analyzed federal data and showed that the government spends more than $1.6tn on federal contractors employing more than 12.5 million people with 4.5 million of those workers making below $15 an hour. Many of these workers are employed by contractors as janitors, cafeteria workers, call center workers, administrative assistants and healthcare aides, and union campaigners say they are being kept on poverty wages.
A minimum wage of $15 an hour is a target for many US pro-union groups that have waged a national campaign on the issue and won successes in places such as California, Seattle and Oakland. “We expect our government to lead by example and set standards for how to do business during the private sector,” said Joe Geevarghese, the Good Jobs Nation executive director. “I just think people know on a fundamental level that this is wrong; that the federal government should be lifting workers into the middle class and not pushing them further into poverty”.
Under the Obama administration, the federal government began to take steps to lift the wages of federal contractors. In 2012, Barack Obama signed an executive order raising the minimum wage for all workers employed on federal contracts to $10.10 an hour. In 2014, Obama signed the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces executive order, which prevented contractors who violate labor law from receiving federal contracts.
Organized labor applauded the orders as some of the most far-reaching reforms for workers achieved under Obama, though they fell short of their aim of establishing a $15 minimum wage.
The Trump administration has already started clawing back the moves. In 2017, the administration repealed the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces executive order. Then, in June of this year, the White House exempted contractors employed by the National Park Service from having to pay their workers the $10.10 minimum wage rate
Officials portrayed the move as boosting the economy and creating jobs. “The order will have a positive effect on rural economies and American families, allowing guides and outfitters to bring tourists out on multi-day hiking, fishing, hunting, and camping expeditions, without enduring costly burdens,” said interior secretary Ryan Zinke in a statement.
Many observers expect the Trump administration to take further action to rollback the regulations around the use of federal contractors and their hiring practises. In July, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced it intends to stop allowing automatic union dues deduction for home healthcare workers employed by federal contractors.
Union groups and other campaigners see such moves as an attack on their power to secure higher wages for workers. “[This is] an often low-paid and vulnerable workforce of predominantly women of color who do critical work helping seniors and people with disabilities with daily tasks,” said Amy Traub, the associate director of policy and research for Demos, a public policy organization that has published research on federal government wages. “These rules slash at workers’ ability to join together to improve their jobs”.