President Obama signed an executive order on Thursday designed to get tougher on federal contractors who violate labor laws.
Most federal contractors play by the rules, the White House said, but every year tens of thousands of Americans are denied overtime wages, subjected to health and safety risks, or discriminated against based on gender or age.
The Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order will require businesses that want to contract with the federal government to disclose their labor law violations from the past three years. Every federal agency will have to appoint a new “labor compliance officer” to determine which companies are the most egregious labor law offenders, and those companies won’t get government contracts. The order will apply to contracts worth more than $500,000 starting in 2016.
This executive order marks the third time this year Obama has acted unilaterally to improve working conditions for employees of federal contractors, including raising their minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and banning discrimination against LGBT people. It’s part of what the administration is calling Obama’s “Year of Action,” during which the president is trying to both bypass and pressure a gridlocked Congress to get things done.
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The Good Jobs Nation campaign, which has organized federal contractors to go on strike nine times in the last year and a half to urge Obama to improve their working conditions, may have been an influential force on the president’s policy choices. Thursday’s order came two days after the most recent work stoppage. Some of those strikes have featured women workers dressed like Rosie the Riveter to point out that the World War II-era Rosies were federal contractors, and were paid the same wage as the men they replaced.
Demos, a liberal economic policy think tank, called for an executive order much like this one in a report on how the federal government is the largest funder of low-wage, low-quality jobs that don’t give their workers enough benefits or bargaining power. Seven out of ten of those taxpayer-subsidized low-wage jobs are held by women.
Demos research estimates that this latest order could protect 6.6 million people from employer abuses. While most federal contractors didn’t violate the law, those that did violated it flagrantly and made a lot of money doing so: 49 of the 200 companies with the worst labor violations from 2007 to 2012 were federal contractors, and the $196 million in penalties they paid for those violations was a pittance compared to the $81 billion they got from federal contracts.
The president’s action covers one aspect of the proposed “Federal Good Jobs Policy,” but advocates say there is still more work to do. “By enacting this Executive Order, the President is responding to a hard-fought campaign by workers to receive fair pay, benefits, and better working conditions,” Demos president Heather McGhee said in a statement. “Now, we call on the President to take further steps to give fully 8 million Americans a fair shot—with more executive action to ensure collective bargaining rights and limiting executive compensation to fifty times the median salary paid to the company’s workers.”