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A Needed Step Toward Fair Pay and Workplace Safety | Commentary

By Sen. Patty Murray Rodney Bridgett’s wife buried her husband on their 14th wedding anniversary. After five months at his new job at a plant in northeast Nebraska, Rodney was standing beneath a piece of equipment just as the safety chain that held it up suddenly snapped, and crushed him.  

Federal investigators found that his employer — a company that receives big federal contracts every year — had failed to inspect the chain and other gear at the plant, putting the company’s workers, like Rodney, directly in harm’s way.  

Rodney was 37 when he died. He had one child in grade school and another still in diapers. His wife now gets a modest stipend. But Rodney’s former employer continues to get big federal contracts.  

It’s time to change the rules to help prevent these avoidable tragedies and to put an end to rewarding companies that have a history of violating workers’ rights. That is why I support the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order from President Barack Obama.  

We need this EO to be implemented as soon as possible, because Rodney’s story is not an isolated problem. An investigation by the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee in 2013 found that almost 30 percent of companies that receive the highest penalties for violations of federal labor law are also federal contractors. In other words, the federal government awards billions of taxpayer dollars to companies that rob workers of their paychecks and fail to maintain safe workplaces.  

What’s more, the investigation found that the contracting companies that received the highest penalties paid $196 million in fines — yet they won $81 billion in taxpayer dollars in fiscal year 2012.  

Obama’s EO would tackle this problem by taking some much-needed steps to make sure government agencies consider an employer’s record of providing workers with a safe environment and paying workers what they have earned — before granting and renewing federal contracts.  

This will have three major benefits. First, it will help hold contractors accountable to the federal taxpayers that fund these projects. Taxpayers should have a basic guarantee that their dollars are going to responsible contractors who will provide the best quality for their money.  

It will help protect basic worker rights for the 26 million Americans who work for federal contractors. Holding federal contractors accountable for providing safe working conditions, paying workers what they have earned, and not discriminating against workers will expand economic security. That’s good for families, and it will help grow our economy from the middle out, not the top down.  

Finally, this EO will help level the playing field for law-abiding businesses. They shouldn’t have to compete with corporations that cut corners and put their workers’ safety at risk or cheat employees out of their earnings.  

As an added benefit, this EO will help save taxpayer dollars by clearing the path for more competent contractors. A report from the Center for American Progress found that some of the same contractors that give workers the shaft also have cost overruns and scheduling delays. So this EO will help the federal government choose contractors that are efficient and effective.  

After hearing from business owners, workers and stakeholder groups through an extended comment period, the Administration is now poised to issue guidance and regulations to help agencies achieve those goals. Finalizing this process could not come soon enough.  

After avoidable tragedies like the one Rodney Bridgett’s family has endured, it’s time to improve how the federal government does business in a way that holds contractors accountable, protects basic worker rights, and helps level the playing field.  

Sen. Patty Murray is a Democrat from Washington.  

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