Why Aren't These Workers Being Paid More?

PHOTO: Low-wage earners went on strike on Tuesday, May 21, 2013, at federal buildings in Washington, D.C. They are demanding that President Obama sign an executive order or legislation guaranteeing federally backed low-wage earners a living wage.Courtesy of goodjobsnation.org
Low-wage earners went on strike on Tuesday, May 21, 2013, at federal buildings in Washington, D.C. They are demanding that President Obama sign an executive order or legislation guaranteeing federally backed low-wage earners a living wage and benefits.

Most people don't think about them until they're gone.

They pick up your trays at the food court and empty the trash bins at the National Air and Space Museum. They make uniforms for the military and drive truckloads of federally owned goods. In other words, they quietly keep things running smoothly at federal buildings in Washington, D.C. and around the country.

But the two million or so low-wage workers who work for private companies on behalf of the federal government say they aren't recognized or compensated fairly, and they're sick of it.

Maximina Benitez has worked at the McDonald's at the Air and Space Museum for five years.

"We need to have a good raise, and holiday payment, and days off, because right now we don't get those benefits," she said.

So on Tuesday, workers walked off the job at the McDonald's, forcing the restaurant to shut down. Hundreds of striking workers also forced the closure of half the food court at the federal Ronald Reagan building. Most are back at work as of Wednesday, but they're hoping the one-day strike gets the attention of policymakers.

They want President Obama to sign legislation or an executive order to force contractors to improve their wages and working conditions. The White House has not yet commented.

Benitez has three children. The youngest has Down Syndrome and requires extra medical attention that can be expensive. She earns $9.54 an hour. Her last raise was just four cents.

The workers have launched Good Jobs Nation, an organization to demand living wages and working conditions for people employed by contractors on behalf of the federal government.

They say it's not right that the chief executives of their employers pull in millions of dollars in bonuses while they struggle to buy clothes and food.

Benitez said some of the workers met with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a hearing Tuesday afternoon to examine federally backed low-wage workers, and that she was receptive to their concerns. Pelosi's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

But McDonald's says it pays people competitive wages and offers opportunities for workers to move into management positions.

"Employees are paid competitive wages and have access to a range of benefits to meet their individual needs," McDonald's said in a statement to Fusion. "In addition, employees who want to go from crew to management can take advantage of a variety of training and professional development opportunities."

However, the workers argue that wages around $9 per hour are not livable. A single mom with two kids making $9 an hour will bring in less than $20,000 in a year, or less than $1,600 per month. There is some public assistance available. A family of three that pulls in less than about $2,070 dollars will qualify for food stamps in Washington, D.C., but other agencies that offer things like housing assistance are so overloaded with applicants that waitlists can be decades long.

And the workers don't want to rely on public assistance. Right now, they say, their wages simply don't leave them with another option.

A recent report from left-leaning think tank Demos found that nearly two million employees who work on behalf of the federal government earn less than $12 per hour. The federal government touts the fact that they've created such jobs during a struggling economy, but Demos argues that adding low-wage jobs to the mix actually causes more problems down the line.

"When our tax dollars underwrite bad jobs, the economy as a whole is weakened and all of us are negatively affected," reads an article on Demos. "There is a ripple effect as low-paid workers and their families have little money to spend, hindering economic growth that could be creating more jobs. Poorly-paid workers also contribute less in taxes and are more likely to rely on public benefits to care for their families."

Benitez lives in Tacoma Park, Maryland. The trip south into Washington can take up to an hour by bus and metro.

She says she would live closer to work, but she can't afford the high costs.