Lawmakers urge change from within to improve low-wage workers' pay

Friday - 7/5/2013, 10:41am EDT

By Cogan Schneier
Special to Federal News Radio

Members of Congress are calling on the government to get out in front of the growing income gap by addressing the low wages paid within its own buildings.

In a July 2 letter to President Barack Obama, 17 House Democrats said the government needs to take action toward the fair treatment and decent pay of its unskilled service-contract employees, particularly those working at iconic sites such as Union Station, the Smithsonian and the National Zoo.

"The nation's capital, home of the nation's monumental tourist sites and buildings, is the visible epicenter of federal collusion with vendors and contractors that pay low wages to their employees at federal sites," the letter said.

The letter said the government is responsible when contractors pay employees working at federal sites below a "living wage."

The lawmakers said federally contracted service workers reported to members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus that they are paid so little, they struggle to meet basic needs. Workers sometimes are required to work unpaid and unreported overtime, the letter said.

"These workers perform tasks that would entitle them to decent wages if they were performing the same tasks directly for the federal government. Their employers benefit from the prestige, visibility and imprimatur afforded by their location in prominent federal sites," the letter stated.

A U.S. Department of Labor spokesperson said Department's Wage and Hour Division currently has an open investigation of Trade Center Management Associates providing services at the Ronald Reagan Building. The department said it cannot discuss details of an ongoing law enforcement effort as a matter of policy.

The letter came the same day workers went on strike at several government buildings, including the Ronald Reagan building and the Old Post Office Pavilion. Workers also staged a one-day strike in May.

Progressive Caucus members held a hearing May 21, the same day as the first strike, in which contracted service workers testified saying they often are unable to support their families or afford medical treatment.

"There are no promises in life, but we can promise to work hard to make sure that we raise the wages of people who labor so hard, who are in the Air and Space Museum, the Indian Museum, the Reagan Building, Union Station, America's buildings, who are being paid so little that it would be difficult for them to even buy a meal in the very building they work in. That's a shame, that's a disgrace, and something must be done about it," said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) in the hearing.

According to a report by Demos, a Washington think tank, 2 million federally contracted workers make less than $24,000 a year. The think tank says the government contracts with more low-wage workers than any other private-sector company.

The letter cited Executive Order 11246, signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 to bar job discrimination by federal contractors as an example of the using federal contracting to promote general welfare.

To solve the problem, members proposed a point system. The government would award points to contractors for various qualities, including paying a living wage, and would consider point totals before awarding contracts.

Other media reports say strikes also were planned for Wednesday

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