The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For low-wage federal workers, Obama’s minimum wage order was nice — but not enough

Unions and progressive groups want the federal government to reward companies that treat employees better, not just take the lowest bid.

Workers at the Pentagon’s shops and restaurants protested in January, 2014 for higher wages and better benefits. (Courtesy Change to Win)

Four days a week, at 4:45 in the morning, Jessenia Vega pulls her hair back into a tight bun, leaves the small room she rents in an apartment in Hyattsville and catches a bus. The bus connects to a Metro line that leaves at 5:08. A little before 5:45, she eventually arrives at the Pentagon, goes through security, puts on her uniform, and starts ringing up Egg McMuffins and hash browns at the Defense Department’s in-house McDonalds.

Vega, 31, has asked her bosses to be transferred somewhere closer to where she lives — because she can’t afford to live anywhere else on $10.30 an hour with no health-care benefits or paid time off. Each month, she sends as much money as she can home to Puerto Rico to help with her mother’s dialysis treatments. Since she started in July 2013, however, management hasn’t let her move closer to home.

Lately, Vega has been involved in a campaign that she believes could change the conditions facing her — and thousands of other federal contractors — for the better.

On Monday, Good Jobs Nation, the labor-backed campaign that has organized nine strikes of contract workers in Washington, D.C.-area federal buildings, released a new report demanding that President Obama use his executive authority to require that agencies take workers’ pay and benefits into account when deciding how to award the $460 billion in annual contracts. For example, the government might reward companies that allow workers to unionize or have a committee to negotiate with management, or that pay at least $15 an hour and offer solid health benefits.

Vega is speaking out to elevate the issue. Earlier, in January, she and several dozen other workers skipped their shifts and gathered outside the secure military complex, waving signs protesting low wages and poor benefits. Her sister told her she was proud of her demonstrating. “She says if she were here, she would come, too,” Vega said.

If she were paid better, Vega said, she could get a car, which would expand her options. But it’s more than money; it’s about receiving respect from her employer and her bosses. “I would love to have better co-workers, like how the managers treat us,” she said, explaining that superiors don’t care what she thinks.

The calls for Obama to take more action come after he signed an executive order earlier this year boosting the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 an hour from $7.25 an hour and signed another requiring firms to disclose past labor law violations in contract applications and potentially penalize them for such violations. The wage order affected 200,000 workers. Now Good Jobs Nation — a project of the Change to Win coalition, backed by unions, such as the Teamsters and the SEIU — is working to build on successes.

“The President’s recent executive orders to boost the minimum wage and prevent labor law violations on federal contracts start to address the problem,” reads the short report that makes the case for two new executive orders. “But America’s workers need more than the minimum to have a shot at the American Dream.” The group said it will follow up with more strikes to drive the point home.

McDonald’s did not respond to a request for comment.

The strategy of a president using his executive power to raise working conditions for those on the federal payroll is decades old. President Franklin Roosevelt required employers to cooperate with unions during World War II. In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson put in place affirmative action policies for the hiring of women and minorities for federal jobs, which spread to much of the rest of the workplace.

But lately, such attempts have run into more challenges — both legal and political.

In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton implemented a rule preventing the federal government from contracting with employers who hire permanent replacements for workers who go on strike. That was thrown out by the D.C. Circuit Court, since such a sweeping change — rather than something project-specific — runs afoul of the National Labor Relations Act, which prevents both states and the executive branch of government from bypassing its rules for collective bargaining. And then at the end of his term, Clinton tried an executive order very similar to Obama’s on labor law compliance, only to have it revoked by the incoming administration of George W. Bush.

“This is just the pathology of federal labor relations,” said Cynthia Estlund, a law professor at New York University who specializes in employment. “It’s in a terrible state, and the National Labor Relations Board has little latitude, because it’s working with a very old statue and lots of court precedent.”

Nonetheless, as it became clear that labor issues were far too toxic for a gridlocked Congress to deal with — Reps. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C. Delegate to Congress) and Keith Ellison (D-Mich.) have proposed bills to bolster contractors’ rights, but they’ve gone nowhere — liberal groups have been increasingly asking Obama to push the boundaries of his executive power. The left-leaning Center for American Progress put out a report on the subject back in 2008, and the liberal group Demos followed up last year. Rather than enforcement, the strategy relies on incentives.

“If we create a carrot, maybe it would be more effective,” said Robert Hiltonsmith, a senior policy analyst at Demos. “In one way, this would be a more organic practice.”

Creating a rubric for federal contracts that would adjust bids upward for companies that pay higher wages and offer better benefits, such as health-care coverage and paid time off, might advantage a store like Market Basket — which also has a location at the Pentagon, and is beloved by its employees for paying a starting salary of $12 an hour, plus bonuses — over McDonald’s, for example.

The collective bargaining order that Good Jobs Nation is calling for could operate like Los Angeles Airports’ “labor peace” requirement for concessionaires to recognize labor unions, in exchange for workers not going on strike. That might mean that a contract would go to unionized UPS, rather than non-union FedEx. It could also look like Obama’s earlier executive order on “project labor agreements” for construction projects, which is intended to keep them on budget.

Both ideas are likely to run into strong opposition from contractors.

Stan Soloway, president and CEO of the contractor trade group Professional Services Council, protested Obama’s order on labor law violations. He argued that it creates a huge compliance burden for the majority of contractors with clean records. And any order geared toward increasing take-home pay, he says, is duplicative: The Service Contract Act already sets regional wage floors for each occupation on federal contracts, though it hasn’t been adjusted enough to make much of a difference for many workers. (Workers at the Pentagon are covered by the Service Contract Act, but many are still making as low as $8 an hour).

“The Service Contract Act almost never keeps pace with the economy. Everybody’s frustrated with it. So go fix that,” Soloway said. “If that law is designed to determine the fair and reasonable wage in that locale — why do we want to make contractors pay more, if it’s truly fair and reasonable?”

On the collective bargaining proposal, Soloway raised the example of a company that treats its employees well enough that they’ve never even tried to unionize — would it be penalized?

“The objective of this group is to reverse the downward trend in union membership in this country. And that’s a perfectly legitimate goal,” Soloway said. “But let’s not hide behind that and create definitions and presumptions in policy and law that assume the outcome they want is automatically the best thing for the workforce.”

To Vega, though, a union seems like a pretty good idea.

Although McDonald’s has said before that striking workers would face no retaliation, she said she has felt more uncomfortable at work after she became active with the Good Jobs Nation campaign. The number of her co-workers who participated in the second and third strikes dwindled, Vega said, despite their victories.

That hasn’t intimidated her.

“I was afraid, at first,” Vega said. “Now, no.”