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Federal labor law like dancing on ice floes

A lot can change in a short period of time. As we noted in a post in October, it appeared that employees for federal contractors were headed for some improvements in benefits under orders and rules issued by the Labor Department under President Obama.

By virtue of those actions, companies across the country enjoying the benefits of a federal government contract were on notice that they would be more accountable for complying with labor laws. Failing to pay overtime or provide paid sick leave meant contractors wouldn't see contracts renewed. However, late last month, Congress repealed the orders and President Trump signed the measure into law.

The visual image that comes to mind of what it must be like for some trying to navigate the federal employment bureaucracy is of an Eskimo desperately dashing from chunk to chunk as an ice sheet breaks up under foot. Finding solid ground depends on knowing the law, even as it undergoes change.

What may be striking to some readers is the scope of the implications of the latest law shift. When we think of who is affected by such things, we might envision individuals sitting in expansive cube farms processing forms. But some estimate that government contractor employees make up about a quarter of all U.S. workers and include those in such many low-wage industries such as food service, maintenance and the like.

Because of investigations by labor advocacy groups and the Labor Department's own statistics, it's reported that dozens of government contractors with proven wage violation records face little accountability and continue to see contracts renewed.

Enforcing the law is the responsibility of the Labor Department. However, a lot has to come together to get a case from start to finish. It can take months. It typically starts with the affected employee being willing to file a complaint. But, for someone in a low-wage job who relies on that income, just coming forward can be a hurdle too high, especially if they don't know what their rights are to begin with.

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