Policy group seeks action to boost conditions for workers at federal contracting firms

Joe Davidson
Columnist June 19

A public policy group instrumental in a successful campaign to win a higher minimum wage for federal contract workers is now aiming at a larger target — federal contracting companies.

Demos, in a report released Wednesday, said Uncle Sam could better use his $1.3 trillion in purchasing power by pushing government contractors to improve conditions for their employees.

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

The New York-based organization, whose name means “the people,” is calling on President Obama to issue a “Good Jobs Executive Order” directing agencies “to incorporate higher workforce standards in awarding and evaluating federal contracts.”

Those standards would include:

●Respecting collective bargaining rights

●Offering living wages and decent benefits

●Demonstrating “exemplary” compliance with workplace protection laws

●Capping executive compensation at 50 times the median salary of the company’s staff.

Stan Soloway, president and chief executive of the Professional Services Council that represents contracting companies, said the Demos plan that companies receiving any federal dollars should pay a higher minimum wage “is on very shaky legal ground and based on some extremely questionable data. But even more importantly, it is merely an attempt to circumvent the serious public and legislative debate issues of this importance merit. ”

Even if Soloway’s comments are correct, Demos is worth paying attention to because it can point to results.

Last year, it issued a report that said federal tax dollars fund low-wage work and fuel inequality by contracting with companies that pay some employees less than $12 an hour. With that report as ammunition, the Good Jobs Nation advocacy group organized workers, such as those at fast food restaurants in federal buildings, who then raised awareness by protesting low wages and demanding White House action.

Obama responded in February with an executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal contract workers to $10.10. Last week, the Labor Department issued proposed regulations to implement the order, which will cover new and replacement contracts after Jan. 1.

“It will apply to four major categories: service contracts; construction contracts; concessions contracts; and contracts for services provided to federal employees, their dependents or the general public on federal property or lands,” said Labor Secretary Tom Perez. “That means construction workers building new federal office buildings, the hardworking Americans who sell souvenirs at our national parks and the caregivers who watch over federal employees’ children in agency day-care centers will be covered.”

The minimum wage executive order and the new executive action Demos proposes fit nicely into Obama’s larger efforts to fight income inequality and with his “pen and phone” strategy to make changes without congressional approval

The difference between last year’s report, titled “Underwriting Bad Jobs,” and this week’s report, “Underwriting Good Jobs,” is the millions of workers potentially affected. “The minimum wage increase proposed in the first report only affects workers who spend some of their work hours on federal contracts, while the good jobs policy in this report would affect the company’s entire workforce,” said Robert Hiltonsmith, director of policy and research for Demos.

Labor’s new minimum wage regulations for contract workers is just one of recent events affecting federal contractors. Here are the others:

●The White House said the president will soon issue an executive order prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation by federal contractors. For some time, this order has been requested by gay rights advocates who questioned why it took so long for Obama to act, given his advocacy on more controversial issues such as marriage equality and sexual orientation equality in the military.

Obama wanted Congress to legislate a discrimination ban. It didn’t, and he got tired of waiting.

“Over the last few years we’ve had the opportunity to engage with a broad range of parties and to better understand the cost of discrimination against LGBT workers and to review the research,” said Jeff Zients, director of the White House National Economic Council. “And there’s a large body of research also that clearly demonstrates that workplace equality is not just the right thing to do, it’s also good for business.”

●The Office of Personnel Management’s inspector general issued a report outlining poor oversight by OPM over contractors who do background checks for security clearances. For example, one reviewer in the USIS firm “completed 15,152 background investigations reviews during a one-month time frame, with most of these occurring within minutes of each other on multiple days,” according to the inspector general.

●A Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing focused on a Government Accountability Office report that says it is difficult to determine the extent to which the intelligence community uses contractors.

“GAO’s findings reveal that the numbers in the inventory simply aren’t reliable and that the intelligence agencies do not have the kind of information they need to assess the cost benefit of using contractors, to conduct strategic workforce planning, and to determine the role contractors should play in their organizations,” Chairman Thomas R. Carper (D- Del.) said in a prepared statement.

“In other words, we don’t have the full picture of who is working for the intelligence community as contractors, or why.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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

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