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A bungled contract is still devastating National Guard employees

Catherine Rampell on

In the decades since transitioning to a more professionalized, all-volunteer force, the military has added a host of support services for the growing number of long-term military families. One was the National Guard's Family Assistance Centers.

When this program's contract was awarded in 2012, the Guard had advised companies bidding on the contract to pay wages roughly equivalent to GS-7 to GS-9 levels (about $35,000 to $56,000).

When the contract came up for bid last year, however, the Guard gave vendors different -- and hazier -- guidance. This time it merely instructed them to abide by the McNamara-O'Hara Service Contract Act.

This law requires the Labor Department to set minimum wages for hundreds of specific government contract occupations. The goal is to prevent a race to the bottom -- to protect workers, but also to prevent contractors from cutting corners.

Unfortunately, Family Assistance Center occupations aren't in the Labor Department's existing directory of jobs. And the National Guard never asked for them to be added, as it was supposed to do.

Confusion ensued.

 

One bidder, Cognitive Professional Services, found a junior job title that sounded vaguely related. It then built its bid around the wage floor for that occupation.

That pay level was not only substantially less than what workers such as Ourada had been making. It was even less than what janitors earn in many states.

The strategy worked. With its rock-bottom bid price, Cognitive won the contract and cut pay. (Cognitive did not respond to requests for comment.)

Unsurprisingly, workers quit en masse. At least 135 of 399 incumbent personnel left. And given the low pay, Cognitive has struggled to retain replacements. One position has been filled and vacated three times since March and is now empty again.

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