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(Executive) Order Up! What President Can Do to Help Low Wage Federal Contractors

The New York Times had a resonant editorial last month about the need for an executive order to improve the quality of jobs among federal contractors.

These days, when I say “federal contractor,” you think Snowden. And it turns there are lots of them doing highly classified work for which they are handsomely paid. They are not the folks we’re talking about here. The workers who would benefit from the order suggested by the Times, and in an earlier post by yours truly, clean federal buildings, sell food, sew uniforms for the armed services, provide security services, and so on. They’re members of the low-wage work force.

The president, to his credit, has been on the stump for a minimum wage increase to help reach these workers, and that’s a better way to fight this problem, because it cuts across all industries. But Congress isn’t listening, and thus he’s been clear and strong on this point: if Congress won’t help, I’ll do what I can through EOs.

So here’s the executive order that we need to see, and the sooner the better: procurement officers — the folks who decide which firms get the bid — should be able to factor job quality into their decision. It’s that simple. By law, they have to take the lowest bid, but that rule is of course conditional on the quality of the output, otherwise my kid could win the bid to build a bridge out of Legos. Well, there’s good evidence that the quality of the work is a function of the wage, working conditions, commitments to training, workforce tenure, and such characteristics that we see in high-road versus low-road employers.

Simply allowing procurement officers to consider those characteristics when they’re deciding who gets the bid would improve the quality of work and the living standards of thousands of contracted workers. The contractors and their lobbies won’t like it, but let’s be very clear: this is a mild intervention — it is not saying “we’ll give the bid to the firm that pays the most.” It’s saying, all else equal, controlling for the bottom line (and thus protecting the taxpayer), we’ll give the bid to the better employer/producer.

I rarely bug the president directly, but sir, I believe you when you say you’ll work around our frozen Congress when you have to, as you have in the past. This is an excellent time and a great cause to do so again.

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Jared Bernstein
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