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The Forgotten Workforce

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Abstract:

The living wage movement was born out of frustration with Congress' failure to enact a minimum wage that lifts families out of poverty. Initially, living wage activists focused their efforts on passing ordinances at the local level to ensure that the workers employed with government funds were paid above a poverty-level wage.

After claiming victories in over 50 localities around the country, the living wage movement is now turning its attention to a group of workers laboring behind the scenes of federal government: those people who work on federal contracts yet earn only poverty-level wages. Recent legislation introduced in Congress would require businesses to pay workers employed on federal contracts a living wage, that is, the amount a full-time worker would need to earn to support a family of four at the poverty line (i.e., $17,050 a year or $8.20 an hour in 2000).

Most federal contract workers employed by private business do not enjoy wages and benefits comparable to their counterparts in the federal workforce. In fact, the federal government currently does nothing to ensure that contract workers employed with federal funds are paid a living wage. Recent legislation introduced by Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) would require businesses to pay workers employed on federal contracts a living wage, defined as $8.20 an hour. If federal living wage legislation is expanded to include direct federal employees, an additional 274,000 federal workers would also receive a wage increase. The lack of data on federal contract workers and who these workers are makes providing a profile of these low-wage earners difficult.

Further research, such as a survey of contracting firms, is needed in order to know more about these workers and their economic circumstances.