By Justin Sink
President Obama on Wednesday signed an executive order that will raise the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 per hour.
In a ceremony at the White House with workers that made at or near the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, Obama vowed his move "will make a difference for folks."
But it might be a while before many federal contractors see the impact of the order.
The presidential directive will only apply to workers who are hired under new federal contracts, beginning in January of next year.
Earlier Wednesday, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez told reporters the order would benefit "hundreds of thousands" of federal workers — but admitted that could be over as many as five years. He added the administration needed to finalize how the order would be implemented to have a "better handle" on exactly how many workers would benefit.
And only a small percentage of the federally contracting workforce is paid less than $10.10 per hour. According to a study by New York University professor Paul Light, there were 7.6 million contractors working for the federal government in 2005 — a number that has likely increased in the ensuing decade.
Still, White House press secretary Jay Carney denied the move was purely symbolic.
"I think that symbols, by definition, are not substantive," Carney said. "This has a substantive effect on federal contractors and those who make below $10.10 an hour."
Nevertheless, Obama was clearly attempting to parlay the signing of the executive action — first announced during his State of the Union address last month — into broader political action. Obama has openly encouraged lawmakers to match the hike for employees nationwide and called again on lawmakers to act on Wednesday.
"Members of Congress have a pretty clear choice to make right now: Raise our worker's wages, grow our economy, or let wages stagnate further and give workers what amounts to another pay cut this year," Obama said.
The president also encouraged activists in attendance to lobby their members of Congress on the issue.
"Ask your senator, ask your representative in the House: Do you support raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour? If they say yes, tell them good job. You know, they don't hear that that often, so give them a pat on the back, give them a hug and let them know, way to go. That's the right thing to do.
If they say no, you know, be polite — I mean, don't just yell at them — but say, 'Well, why not?' Ask them to reconsider siding with an overwhelming majority of Americans."
Some Republican lawmakers, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), have opposed the push, arguing it could hurt growth.
"There's no question that the minimum wage increase, if not done in conjunction with some kind of incentives for the businesses not to lay off employees — are going to dramatically increase unemployment," McConnell told Fox News earlier this month. "I don't think in this jobless recovery, we ought to be doing things that creates fewer jobs. We ought to be doing things that create more jobs."
But some vulnerable Democrats have also been reluctant to embrace the idea. Sen. Mark Pryor (Ark.), who is facing a tough reelection this fall, told Bloomberg News he did not support setting the wage at Obama's proposed level.
“I know $10.10 still isn’t a whole lot of money, but I think it’s too much too fast,” Pryor said. "I'm not supportive of that."