by Sherrod Brown, Opinion contributor
The greatest pain from the president’s temper tantrum will fall on the lowest-wage workers who are invisible to him — employees of private contractors.
Shutdown protest near Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Jan. 8, 2019.
(Photo: Matt Rourke, AP)
As usual, President Donald Trump and far too many in Congress — self-professed Christians all — ignore the wisdom of Matthew 25: When did we ever see you hungry and not feed you? When did we ever see you sick and not help?
The Lord answered, whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me — you failed to do it for me.
This government shutdown is the latest example of how President Donald Trump has overlooked, ignored and betrayed American workers.
Nearly 800,000 federal employees are going without a paycheck. President Trump said his shutdown has a “higher purpose than next week’s pay.” Tell that to the Transportation Security Administration agents I met in Cleveland, with children to feed and rent coming due.
But perhaps the greatest pain from the president’s temper tantrum will fall on the lowest-wage workers who are invisible to this president.
Read more commentary:
I lost my job because of the government shutdown, and my family isn’t alone
Shutdown: Empathy won’t move Trump. It’ll take pain, tragedy and GOP desertions.
Trump’s ‘border security’ shutdown: Cut off cash to people and agencies that protect us
Think about the custodians keeping our public spaces clean, or the cafeteria workers who serve the public, or the security guards keeping us safe. They’re often employed by private contracting companies — meaning they don’t receive the pay, job security or retirement benefits that direct federal employees do.
They’re paid too little to begin with — often $12 or $15 an hour. Now thousands of these workers can’t work and aren’t getting paid, thanks to President Trump — and unlike direct government employees, they have no way of making up those lost hours and lost wages.
Unless Congress acts, many of these workers won’t receive back pay when the government finally reopens. I’m working with my colleagues on legislation to fix that.
This week, I met with some of these workers. They serve food in the cafeterias of our national museums. They’re paid by the hour, they have bills piling up, and they have no idea when they’ll work again.
One of those workers, Patricia Williams, told me, “I have rent to pay. Who’s going to pay our bills? And those that have kids — what’s happening to their children?”
Contract workers have less economic security
The shutdown is a unique problem for these workers, but the broader challenges they face go beyond the president’s shutdown and aren’t unique at all. These workers are part of a large and growing problem in this country. Government is far from alone in subcontracting out this work, and the result for workers is always the same: less job stability, less power in the workplace and less economic security.
Office buildings, banks, airlines, hospitals and many other private corporations have followed this practice for years. Under the guise of saving money, they contract out food service, security officers, custodians and other service jobs to a little-known company.
It allows them to cut wages and slash health and retirement benefits to some of the hardest workers, while paying none of the PR price — after all, it wasn’t the airline or the hospital or your own government cutting salaries; it was some private contracting firm you’ve never heard of.
A study by the National Employment Law Project cited industry analysts estimating that 93 percent of all janitorial services nationwide are independent contractors or franchisees. Another industry survey of companies across different sectors found that 81 percent outsourced domestic transportation and that 73 percent outsourced warehousing to third-party companies.
Companies bidding on these contracts have an incentive to set labor costs — in other words, workers’ wages — as low as possible. The larger company or organization is no longer making a decision about how much to pay its workers; it’s just looking at competing bids and trying to pick the lowest number.
Respect the dignity of work and workers
But behind those numbers are millions of workers who are vital to these companies and to our government, and who are being denied the opportunity to earn their way to a better life.
We have to change that.
We must stop the race to the bottom that spurs companies to contract out large portions of their workforce, all to cut wages. We need a Corporate Freeloader Fee. If you’re a huge corporation paying your workers so little that they’re forced onto government assistance, as some of these subcontracting companies do, you need to reimburse American taxpayers. And when we hold corporations accountable for treating their workers poorly, we reduce the incentives for companies to pay their workers as little as possible.
When the Trump shutdown finally ends, our fight will be far from over. We have a large and growing problem in this country — we don’t respect the dignity of work and the people who do it. We must keep fighting for an economy that rewards all work, including the low income-workers who have been forgotten once again by this president.
Sherrod Brown is a Democratic senator from Ohio. Follow him on Twitter: @SenSherrodBrown
USA Today · by Sherrod Brown, Opinion contributor