Obama’s minimum-wage plan answers calls from recent worker movement

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President Obama said Tuesday that he would set a $10.10 minimum wage for workers under new federal contracts, answering calls from a small but persistent worker movement that sprang up in the nation’s capital last year.

Good Jobs Nation, a coalition of labor and civil-rights groups, has organized seven demonstrations in the district since May, each time demanding higher pay, better working conditions and greater collective bargaining for employees of federal vendors.

(AP Photo/Larry Downing)
(AP Photo/Larry Downing)

Obama signaled during his State of the Union address that he would fulfill one of those requests, promising an executive order that would establish the new rate for employees of federal vendors. “If you cook our troops’ meals or wash their dishes, you shouldn’t have to live in poverty,” he said.

Good Jobs Nation has described the president’s pledge as a partial victory, saying it meets some of the group’s calls and sets a standard in the midst of a nationwide debate over income inequality and minimum-wage rates.

“What this shows is that workers can win when they act, and not just for contract workers in D.C.,” said Joseph Geevarghese, deputy director of the Change to Win labor group. “What’s significant is the symbolic effect. It’s a signal that could move into the private sector with employers like McDonalds and Wal-Mart. Workers will be more emboldened when they realize President Obama is on their side.”

In his address, the president called on Congress to pass legislation that would raise the federal minimum wage for all employees from $7.25 to $10.10, telling lawmakers: “Say yes. Give America a raise.”

Obama also encouraged states to raise their wage requirements and called on business leaders to increase their employee’s salaries.

The White House said in an announcement on Tuesday that the executive order affecting federal contractors would benefit the government and “hardworking people” alike. “Boosting wages will lower turnover and increase morale, and will lead to higher productivity overall,” the administration said.

The proposed mandate will affect a broad range of federally contracted workers, from those who wash dishes or do laundry at military bases to the souvenir-shop employees at the Smithsonian museums.

Lizbeth Caceres, a 46-year-old single mother of two who works at a Pentagon McDonalds, said the president’s order could help her make ends meet. “I earn $8.43 an hour,” she said through an interpreter. “I have rent and other bills, and we have to pay out of pocket if we get sick. You can imagine how difficult it is.”

Caceres said she lives with her parents in Arlington and receives no public assistance.

Not everyone has embraced the president’s plan for an executive order. The Professional Services Council, a group that advocates for government contractors, said the administration has singled out federal contractors among all employers. The group also said the Labor Department is already bound by law to enforce wage rates that exceed Obama’s proposed level for most positions with federal vendors.

The president is scheduled to begin a two-day tour on Wednesday to promote his agenda in four states, starting in Maryland, which passed a “living wage” law in 2007 for companies that contract with the state. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has proposed raising the state’s minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

The other stops on Obama’s tour include Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Tennessee, and Maryland.

Follow Josh Hicks on TwitterFacebook or Google+. Connect by e-mail at  josh.hicks@washpost.comVisit The Federal Eye, The Fed Page and Post Politics for more federal news. E-mail federalworker@washpost.com with news tips and other suggestion.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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