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How one stroke of the pen could lift wages for millions

Courtney Shackleford is one of two entry-level employees at the Ben and Jerry's in Washington, D.C.,'s Union Station, where she makes $8.25 an hour. Like many
Federal Worker Strike - Ned Resnikoff - 09/25/2013
Demonstrators gather in the hundreds to protest minimum wage standards in the United States on Tuesday, May 21, 2013 at Union Station in Washington DC.

Courtney Shackleford is one of two entry-level employees at the Ben and Jerry's in Washington, D.C.,'s Union Station, where she makes $8.25 an hour. Like many workers in America's growing low-wage economy, she struggles to make ends meet: Between her pregnancy and her tuition fees at Trinity Washington University, Shackleford doesn't make enough to cover basic expenses.

"You want to move out of your parents' house, at least get your own little apartment, and it's just not enough because living wage in D.C. is so high," said Shackleford, who lives with her father.

But Shackleford isn't just a low-wage worker: She's a low-wage worker whose employer happens to have a contract with the United States government. Because the Ben and Jerry's that she works at is located in a federally-owned building, the federal government has broad latitude to determine how employees there are treated. On Thursday, Shackleford and about 175 other federally contracted workers are going on strike, rallying outside the White House, and asking the president to exercise that authority.

Roughly 2 million low wage employees—defined as employees who make $12 or less per hour—work for companies with government contracts or other forms of government funding, according to a report from the think tank Demos. For several months, Washington-based workers who fit that description have been organizing under the banner of the labor group Good Jobs Nation, in the hopes that they can push President Obama to sign an executive order which would increase their pay.

Demos unveiled a proposal for what that executive order might look like in another report whose release was timed to accompany the most recent strike. If the U.S. government barred contractors from paying any one employee more than $230,700 per year, and if the savings created by that wage cap were redirected toward the lowest-paying employees, Demos estimates that low-wage workers could get a raise of $6.68 per hour.

Speaking in front of the White House, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., said he was "optimistic" that the president would use his executive authority to improve conditions for federally contracted workers.

"We've got 49 members of the House, 15 members of the Senate, standing with workers who work for federal contractors to say look, people have got to be able to work for a living wage," he said on MSNBC's NOW with Alex Wagner. Ellison was an early supporter of Good Jobs Nation's demands.

During a July economic address, President Obama vowed to use "whatever executive authority I have to help the middle class." Whether he will ultimately weigh in on Good Jobs nation's demands remains to be seen.

"I think the president wants to do it. I think the president's heart is in the right place," said Ellison. "We've just got to get his pen in the right place, on that executive order."

Meanwhile, low wage federally contracted workers may have yet another problem on their hands: The approaching deadline for Congress to pass a budget. If all non-essential government services do shut down, then the maintenance and food service staff in Washington's museums and federal buildings will all be out of work indefinitely. A spokesperson for the Smithsonian Institute, which uses contractors to run its museum's restaurants and cafeterias, said it would be up to the private companies to decide what to do with their employees if the museums did close down.