Living wage effort goes national

December 07, 2000

The federal government is among the nation’s biggest cheapskates, with an estimated one in 10 federal contract employees paid poverty-level wages, according to a study released last week by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). That report, released simultaneously by a coalition of social justice organizations, kicked off a nationwide campaign to pass a living wage ordinance through Congress.

The Federal Living Wage Responsibility Act, (HR 4353), introduced by Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) would require all firms that hold a federal contract worth at least $10,000 to pay its employees a minimum of $8.20 an hour or $17,050 annually, which is the federal poverty level for a family of four. Gutierrez’s bill, which currently has no Senate companion bill, exempts small businesses and most nonprofits.

The EPI study, “The Forgotten Workforce,” found that an estimated 162,000 employees—or about12 percent of the 1.4 million federal contract work force—earn less than $8.20 an hour. In Montana alone, the study identified 790 federal jobs that pay poverty wages. The worst abusers were federal defense contractors, which provide about 62 percent of those low-wage jobs.

“Not surprisingly, most of these workers are female, adult, full-time workers and are disproportionately minorities,” says Derek Birnie of Montana People’s Action.

“As a society we seem to agree that the minimum wage law is a valid part of our social and political contract,” says Bruce Morris of Missoula’s Carpenters Union Local 28. “Why shouldn’t that wage be one that keeps folks living above the poverty level?”

Since 1995, more than 53 cities and counties nationwide have passed living wage ordinances, with minimal or no detrimental economic impact, says Anita Anderson of the Missoula Living Wage Coalition. In fact, one study conducted in Los Angeles found that about 50.4 percent of the employees affected by their living wage ordinance now receive no public assistance whatsoever.

The Missoula Living Wage Coalition has been working for years on a local living wage ordinance. Although last year’s living wage ballot initiative was defeated by a small margin, Missoula City Councilman Jim McGrath says that the debate helped educate the community on who would or would not be covered by such an ordinance, helped pinpoint the shortcomings in the proposed ordinance and will result in a better piece of legislation.

“Clearly, public funds to create jobs should have minimum expectations on compensation for their workers,” says McGrath. “It’s just good business for the taxpayers.” McGrath adds that Missoula’s county commissioners are considering a similar policy change and hopes to schedule hearings on a new city ordinance he has drafted sometime in early 2001.

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