A veteran visits the Korean War Veterans Memorial. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

Government officials often pay lip service to “supporting our troops.” But some of the people who literally do that vital work have just been badly shortchanged.

For at least the third time in two years, the National Guard Bureau has awarded a contract for military family services to a lowball bidder. For the third time, that bid was based on plans to cut workers’ pay by about a third on average, and in some cases by half. These pay levels are so low that they may not be legal, according to a complaint filed Monday with the Labor Department.

And for the third time, these sudden wage cuts have led to mass resignations, leaving few workers available to help prepare military families for deployment, reintegration into civilian life, and the financial and psychological stresses that can come with both.

“They’ve devalued not only us but the services we give to military families across the country,” said Kevin McDonnell, a veteran and contract worker whose hourly wages fell from $24.85 to $14.02.

McDonnell is one of about 400 people employed by the military’s Family Assistance Centers, which connect families with legal, financial and psychological resources inside and outside the military. Center workers help families plan budgets and understand health benefits. They do crisis intervention, providing referrals for families dealing with suicide, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder. And they develop relationships with local organizations that offer free or discounted services to military families.

One Family Assistance Center specialist in Minnesota told me he helped a homeless veteran find housing when it was 20 below zero outside. Another haggled with an insurance company after a deployed soldier’s house flooded. About 80 percent of these workers are veterans or close family members of military members.

These are also solid, middle-class jobs. Or they were.

Before a new contractor took over last month, the workers who deal directly with families (“specialists”) made $19 to $25 per hour, depending on location, and their managers (“coordinators”) made $23 to $30. As of March, both supervisor and supervisee both make around $10 to $16 an hour, again depending on location.

The firm that won the contract was required to offer employees the chance to keep their jobs, but workers quit by the dozens. Today 88 of 417 positions remain vacant, according to a National Guard Bureau spokeswoman. Many who stayed say they are actively looking for new jobs. Not because they dislike the work, but because they can’t pay their bills.

“I’m now utilizing some of the services that I send other vets to because I couldn’t make ends meet,” said Frank Ourada, 30. A former infantry Marine who is disabled, he previously made $20.08 per hour, and now earns $13.17. He has applied to a state energy-assistance program and has been visiting a food pantry.

So what happened?

When the previous contract went up for bid, in 2011, the National Guard Bureau told vendors that these jobs were supposed to be roughly equivalent to a GS-7 or GS-9 pay grade. This time, however, the bureau offered incomplete and sometimes contradictory guidance about compensation. Sometimes it told vendors to base bids on the cost guidelines described in 2011; sometimes it merely said to abide by the McNamara-O’Hara Service Contract Act, which it only recently determined covers these contracts.

The Service Contract Act sets minimum pay for workers on government contracts, based on an official Labor Department directory of occupations. The Family Assistance Center specialists and coordinators, however, are not listed in that official directory. The National Guard Bureau says it did not ask the Labor Department to issue a wage determination specifically for these jobs and left it up to companies to decide what occupations applied.

The company that won the contract, Cognitive Professional Services, set pay rates by looking through the occupational directory and choosing another job title, for a more junior position, that might have sounded sorta similar (“Family Readiness and Support Services Coordinator”). It then offered the minimum required for that occupation — which in some counties was less than the pay for janitors, housekeeping aides and gardeners.

In fact, in some counties, Cognitive has offered below the meager minimum for that more junior-level occupation. That is according to workers I interviewed as well as a Labor Department complaint filed Monday by Good Jobs Nation, a group that advocates on behalf of government contract employees. It is possible Cognitive had been using outdated wage directory data; the company did not respond to multiple requests for comment, however.

Arguably the National Guard Bureau should have seen these problems coming.

Similar lowball bids by other vendors on two previous military family service contracts awarded since 2015 — for Family Support Services and the Air National Guard Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program — also led to massive wage cuts and resignations. In those cases the National Guard Bureau says it specifically told vendors that the lower-wage “Family Readiness and Support Services Coordinator” job title applied. A worker affected by the Yellow Ribbon wage cuts filed her own Labor Department complaint in October, also alleging misclassification.

Despite the financial strain, Ourada — the Family Assistance Center specialist having to use food pantries — says this work is his calling, and he hopes to stay as long as he can. Asked why, he cites an emergency he handled about a week before the previous contract ended.

“I was just about to close up shop when I had somebody call me and talk about him wanting to hurt himself,” he said. He shudders to think about who might be falling through the cracks today given the number of vacancies around the country.

So should the rest of us.