It’s Time for a $15 Federal Minimum Wage

Some wage-grade workers, like commissary employees, are facing pay cuts. Some wage-grade workers, like commissary employees, are facing pay cuts. Kevin L. Robinson/Defense Commissary Agency

Across the country, city and state leaders are raising wages for their lowest paid workers as part of a growing movement to ensure all employees can earn a living wage. Yet the federal government remains frustratingly mired in the past, maintaining a minimum wage that pays employees less today than they would have earned in 1968.

Just last month, city leaders in Los Angeles voted to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour over the next five years, joining three other cities that have enacted a $15 minimum wage in the past year. That’s more than double the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

Tens of thousands of federal and District of Columbia government employees are working full time, yet earning less than $15 an hour. These are not temps or interns; they are licensed practical nurses and canteen workers at our veterans’ hospitals, food service workers at our commissaries, and maintenance workers at our military bases. The Obama administration has shown a willingness to raise the minimum wage for its contractor workforce, but has said and done nothing similar for its own low-wage workers.

These federal workers are just as vital to the mission of their agencies as everyone else, yet they are unable to support themselves and their families on the paltry wages they earn from the government. To make matters worse, some employees who earn above the $15 threshold are in danger of seeing their salaries slashed due to callous actions by their agencies and Congress.

The Veterans Affairs Department announced a plan last year to reclassify and downgrade 21,000 employees, most of whom work as a GS-7 or below, expanding an effort it began several years earlier that resulted in about 1,600 low-wage employees seeing their pay permanently cut following reclassification.

Meanwhile, the Defense Department wants to cut the salaries of commissary workers by as much as half, as part of larger plan to merge the Defense Commissary Agency with the Army and Air Force Exchange Service.

It’s disgraceful that the federal government has failed to raise living standards for so many of its own workers, and even is conspiring to slash wages for others.

Raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour will help not only the government’s own workers, but uplift the millions of working Americans who are paid at or below the current minimum wage. An employee receiving today’s federal minimum wage earns roughly half of what the same employee earned in 1968, when adjusted for inflation. Even President Obama’s proposal to increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour wouldn’t close that gap.

Higher wages mean higher standards of living for working families and less dependence on government assistance, better workforce morale and lower poverty, and investing in a better future instead of racing to the bottom.

But at its core, raising the wage is more than just an economic issue; it is a moral one. Anyone who works hard and plays by the rules should have a fair shot at the American Dream.

Rather than serving as an example for what not to do, the federal government should be a role model for other employers to emulate. It’s time for the federal government to lead from the front and treat its workers with the dignity and respect they deserve. It’s time to raise the minimum wage for all workers -- including the federal government’s own workforce -- to $15 per hour.

J. David Cox Sr. is national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents more than 670,000 federal and D.C. government employees nationwide.

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