I recently met Jonathan Ross, a single father trying to support his daughter on $10,000 a year. Jonathan works at a cafe at the Smithsonian American History Museum, a federal building that houses an exhibit on the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Like those who marched in 1963, Jonathan is standing up for his family and all workers who deserve decent pay for a full day’s work.
This week, hundreds of workers like Jonathan went on strike at federally owned buildings around D.C., refusing to be ignored any longer. They called for a living wage and a voice on the job. They’re standing up because they want to support their families and give their children a chance at a better future.
President Barack Obama should take executive action to help working families. During a recent speech on the economy, the president said we should focus on increasing wages. “We have to make the investments necessary to attract good jobs that pay good wages and offer high standards of living.”
But you might be surprised to find out that the largest low-wage job producer in America isn’t some big corporation–it’s Uncle Sam.
According to a recent report from the nonprofit organization Demos, the federal government employs nearly two million low-wage workers under federal contracts, loans, leases, and grants. These hardworking women and men do important work for our country, from keeping Union Station clean to sewing uniforms for our troops.
Each year, hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars go to big corporations that pocket billions in profits but pay their employees low wages. Many of these workers report being paid less than the minimum wage and not getting paid time-and-a-half for overtime work, meaning that unlawful wage theft may be occurring on federal property.
In fact, according to a report by the National Employment Law Project (NELP), 74 percent of federally contracted workers report earning less than $10 an hour and almost 60 percent admit having trouble paying their monthly bills. Twenty percent of these workers are dependent on Medicaid for their health care, and nearly one in six depend on food stamps to feed their families.
Making matters worse, the federal minimum wage hasn’t kept up with inflation. At the time of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, it was more than two dollars higher, adjusted for inflation, than it is today.
According to the latest data, the pay level to achieve basic economic security for an adult with one child in DC is $30.31 per hour or $64,008 a year, $54,000 more than Jonathan Ross makes in his full-time job. In my home state of Minnesota, It takes 86 hours a week working in a minimum wage job to pay for an average two-bedroom apartment.
Americans working full time should not be living in poverty, especially those paid by businesses that have contracts with the federal government. If you’re willing to work hard like Jonathan, you should be able afford the things you and your family need: food, healthcare and housing.
Big corporations received $446.5 billion in federal contracts last year, but low pay forces their employees to turn to taxpayer-funded public assistance to provide for their basic needs. Contractors can easily afford to pay their employees a living wage and relieve the pressure on vital programs for America’s working families.
So how do we fix it?
I’ve asked President Obama to sign an executive order requiring all companies with federal contracts to pay their employees a living wage. He can do it today. This would put more money in the pockets of working families to spend at local businesses, while taxpayers won’t have to make up the difference when major contractors shortchange their employees. We must ensure our federal dollars aren’t used to fill the pockets of corporations while working families struggle to put food on the table.
State and local governments are leading the way. The NELP report found that states and cities across the country are using contracting policies to require contractors to pay their employees good wages, which helps contractors already paying their employees a living wage to make competitive bids.
In Washington, we hear a lot about the need for good jobs that can support a family, but our government is actively supporting bad jobs.
Two million workers and their families hang in the balance. President Obama has the power to tip the scales towards fair wages. And Congress should step up to do their part for working families.
Ellison represents the fifth congressional district of Minnesota. He is co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and has been involved with the movement for fair wages this summer through the Raise Up America campaign.