Low-wage workers seek Obama’s help


Strike participants gather in the hundreds to protest minimum wage standards in the United States on Tuesday, May 21, 2013 at Union Station in Washington D.C. (Amanda Voisard/For the Washington Post)
Joe Davidson
Columnist June 3, 2013

Federal contractors range from the wealthy to the barely paid.

This week the Obama administration plans to ask Congress to amend the law so the government will not have to reimburse companies almost $1 million for the salaries of individual executives who work on government projects.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

At the other end of the income spectrum are low-wage employees of firms that provide services such as food and cleaning in federally controlled buildings. They want President Obama to take action to provide them living wages.

Regarding the executives’ pay, the administration’s proposal, as we wrote last week, would peg the top reimbursement level to the president’s salary, now $400,000. Under current law, the cap on reimbursement is linked to the compensation of top private-sector executives. That cap will soon rise to $950,000 a year.

The logic is clear: The federal government should not pay a contractor more than it pays the president. The American Federation of Government Employees thinks $400,000 is too much. Keep in mind that those companies are free to give their executives pay on top of the federal reimbursement.

Don’t get the impression that all federal contractors are so well-heeled. Many are hardworking folks doing okay on middle-class pay.

But many others aren’t doing okay. They aren’t getting by. They work in federal buildings, yet some are paid less than the minimum wage. Some make so little that they get public assistance. They serve hamburgers and clean toilets.

In a forthcoming publication, the National Employment Law Project (NELP) will report on its survey of 567 workers in federally contracted jobs. They make military uniforms, provide janitorial services and drive trucks.

According to the report, 74 percent earn less than $10 an hour, 58 percent have no employment benefits and at least 20 percent depend on some form of public assistance.

“The federal government needs to lead by example as it once did and ensure that federally linked activity does not inadvertently subsidize low-road employment and fuel poverty, but instead supports the types of quality jobs that communities and our economy need to grow and thrive once more,” says the report.

Some of the low-wage workers, organized by the Good Jobs Nation campaign, have written poignant letters to Obama, urging him to recognize their plight and take some action to improve their pay.

Here are edited excerpts from some of the letters:

Dear Mr. President:

My name is Wilfredo Reyes Lopez.

My wife recently died of cancer and my three children depend on my paycheck. I work as a cook in the Ronald Reagan Building, which is owned by the US Government. l am forced to work for $6.50 per hour which is under the (District’s) legal minimum wage of $8.25. I don’t make enough to buy food and I often have to borrow money to eat. I don’t even have a decent place to live. Four of us sleep in a single bedroom.

***

Dear Mr. President:

My name is Ana Julia Fuentes. I have worked as a janitor at Union Station for 23 years but I am only paid 8.75 per hour with no benefits. I don’t even have paid holidays, sick days, and paid vacations, much less health insurance.

My husband is unemployed and searching for work. If we wouldn’t count on the help of my two children to help pay the rent and utilities, we wouldn’t have a roof over our heads. The hardest thing is when we get sick because everything has to come out from our pockets.

If there’s anything you can do to help the workers on federal properties, please do it.

***

Hello Mr. President,

My name is Ana Salvador. I have worked at McDonald’s for the last 11 years at the Air and Space Museum.

I am a single mother with four children. Because I don’t make enough money to support them, I depend on public assistance, including food stamps and Medicaid. I live in an attic with my four kids in a dangerous neighborhood with a lot of crime.

Sometimes I cry because I cannot give my children [a] better life. I can’t buy them toys or a computer; take them to the movies or on vacation; most of my money goes to pay for rent or transportation.

Mr. President, do you think this is a good life?

***

My name is Sofia Baires. I work for Restaurant Associates at the American History Museum. I am writing you to hear mine and my children’s voices about our poor salaries and benefits.

I’m a mother of five children with no health insurance because I cannot afford to pay for it. My salary is not enough to bring good food to the table for my family. As of today I cannot afford to take my kids to the movies or to buy new clothes or even eat out. I only took two weeks off for my maternity leave because the company only gave me two weeks of vacation.

Mr. President, I am asking you to do what is right for working families. Please pass an executive order to make sure the company pays us a decent salary with affordable benefits.

The General Services Administration, which controls many federal buildings, referred questions to the Office of Management and Budget, which had no comment. The White House and the Smithsonian did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did McDonald’s.

Gina Zimmer, Restaurant Associates’ vice president of marketing and communications, said, “we will comply with whatever the federal government decides in this matter.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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