Republican State AGs Are Trying to Cut Workers’ Wages

While posturing as defenders of working people, over a dozen GOP Attorneys General are seeking to undo wage increases for workers on federal contracts.

Megan Uzzell and JoAnn Kintz

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In recent media appearances and press releases, Republican Attorneys General have been talking a big game about inflation and kitchen table pocketbook issues. Over the coming weekend, these same officials will likely be wishing their constituents a happy Labor Day and boasting about their commitment to working families on social media. 

Meanwhile, more than a dozen GOP AGs are actively seeking to use the courts to cut workers’ federal minimum wages and wage protections. This hypocrisy should be called out for what it is: an attack on working people. These workers should not be collateral damage in political games to score points against the Biden administration. State Attorneys General who seek to undermine the economic well-being of workers in their own states should be held to account. 

In four challenges in six federal courts across the country, more than a dozen Attorneys General are using taxpayer dollars to attack wage policies and protections advanced by the Biden administration. AGs in Louisiana, Mississippi, Idaho, Indiana, Nebraska, South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Missouri, Montana and Oklahoma, led by Arizona and Texas, have either sued or filed briefs to support lawsuits seeking to cut workers’ wages. 

The Biden administration has used its lawful authority to protect minimum wage workers. The Department of Labor (DOL) finalized a $15 per hour minimum wage for workers on federal contracts in a rule that became effective for new contracts after January of this year. In December 2021, the DOL implemented a final rule to protect minimum wage restaurant workers who make $2.13 an hour, limiting the amount of time tipped employees can spend performing non-tip-producing work. 

These wage protections are critical. The annual salary for employees of federal contractors making the minimum wage prior to this change fell below the 2021 Census Poverty Threshold for a family of four, which is $27,949. The federal wage increase pushes this annual salary above the poverty threshold and would do so for more than 327,000 workers. From janitors to call center workers, security guards to guides on federal lands, federal contractors are disproportionately women, Black and Latinx workers. Raising their pay will also help to narrow the racial and gender wage gaps in federal contractor workforces. 

Wage protections are no less important for restaurant workers. These workers are often exploited by being required to perform non-tip-producing work while still receiving cash wages as low as $2.13 per hour, a minimum wage that has stayed the same for 30 years. Women — disproportionately women of color — represent more than two-thirds of tipped workers nationwide.

Wage protections don’t just help workers — they help employers too. The final Labor Department federal contractor minimum wage rule showed a link between increased wages and morale and productivity increases, as well as decreases in employee turnover and absenteeism. And while the AGs working to dismantle worker protections and reduce workers’ pay continue making headlines for their efforts in the courts, there are 20 other AGs, led by Illinois, along with advocates, seeking to defend workers and the law in these cases.

Neither of these policies on wages and protections is controversial. Each has historically been supported by administrations controlled by both political parties. Decades of precedent affirm that President Biden has the authority to raise pay standards for workers on federal contracts. Indeed, when President Obama established a federal contractor minimum wage in 2014, no state challenged his authority to take such action. Meanwhile, the restaurant worker policy had been in place through both Democratic and Republican administrations, and is based on agency guidance dating back to the Reagan administration. 

Wage increases and protections are an important part of building a strong middle class and strengthening the economy. Nothing about the president’s or the DOL’s authority in the past 30-plus years has changed. So what has changed? The shameless gamesmanship — win at all cost, score political points, workers be damned.

Armed with arguments grounded neither in the facts nor the law, these AGs are playing games with workers’ wallets. This Labor Day, State Attorneys General need to stop putting the livelihoods of their constituents at risk to score political points. 

Megan Uzzell is the Strategic Initiatives & External Affairs Director at Democracy Forward.

JoAnn Kintz is the Senior Counsel of Democracy Forward.

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