Norton’s proposed bill rewards contractors for fair labor practices

By Matt Wingfield
Federal News Radio

Among the new bills set to be introduced when Congress reconvenes is one that directs federal agencies to give preferential points to federal government contractors based on their labor practices.

Announced on Tuesday by Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), a senior member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the bill would give points to companies that pay their employees a living wage with benefits without passing on additional costs to the federal government, as well as for permitting workers to unionize.

Norton’s bill builds upon the traditional point system used in federal government procurement that rates vendors, contractors and concessionaires with points for various tasks or issues connected to the contract. Norton added that preferential points would help level the playing field and encourage private contractors to treat their workforces with the dignity they deserve.

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“The federal government, through contracts, funds approximately 2 million jobs that pay less than a livable wage,” Norton said in a press release, when announcing the new bill. “The federal contracting system should not be contributing to growing income inequality. My bill will not only afford federal government contract workers a decent wage, but the federal government would see significant savings in benefits, such as food stamps it now offers to supplement the income of these low-wage workers. Not standing in the way of federal contractor employees, who often seek to unionize, would allow wages to become a private matter for bargaining between the contractor and its employees. It is time for the federal government to lead on issues of fairness to workers, not be part of the problem.”

Norton’s new proposal is another step in her ongoing quest to better working conditions for federal contracting employees. In July, Norton introduced the Restore Opportunity, Strengthen and Improve the Economy (ROSIE) Act. During the bidding process. the ROSIE Act awards preferential points to federal government contractors who support workers’ collective bargaining, pay living wages and benefits, stop wage theft and do not pay CEOs excessive salaries. Norton has called on the President to put the ROSIE Act into an executive order. Though introduced in July, the bill has yet to move in the House.

Federal contracting employees scored a major victory earlier this month, as more than 200,000 had their wages increased to $10.10 per hour (effective Jan. 1, 2015). Originally issued via an executive order in February, the Labor Department issued a final rule on the increase on Oct. 9.

The wage hike reflects a recent push by President Barack Obama to increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour for all American workers. That effort, however, has not gained traction in Congress. The current minimum wage is $7.25 per hour and cannot be increased unilaterally by the President.

There has been pushback from the Professional Services Council (PSC) regarding some of these improvement efforts, however. On Aug. 7, Obama signed a separate executive order creating another set of compliance requirements for more than 24,000 companies that work for the government. Under that order, federal vendors have to certify they are not violating 14 different federal labor laws in order to receive future government contracts.

“I want to be clear, the vast majority of the companies that contract with our government, they play by the rules,” Obama said before issuing the order. “They live up to the right workplace standards. But some don’t. And I don’t want those who don’t to be getting a contract and getting a competitive advantage over the folks who are doing the right thing. … That’s not fair.”

PSC said the executive order is contrary to existing law, would result in exorbitant increased costs to the government and companies, and lacks an executable framework.

“While we support the intentions behind this executive order, it fails to establish objective criteria from which contractors can make reasoned judgments and government officials can take informed action,” said PSC President and CEO Stan Soloway in a press release. “The order also entirely ignores that federal and state employment and labor laws already contain enforcement, remedial, and punitive mechanisms to hold federal contractors fully accountable for their compliance.”

PSC has not yet issued a response to Norton’s bill.

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