For two years, Frank Ourada has been “supporting our troops” — more literally than most.
He has connected soldiers and veterans with food pantries, temporary housing and legal advice. He haggled with an insurance company when a soldier’s home flooded. He helped a suicidal veteran find treatment.
Ourada basically ran triage for military families, connecting them with whatever services they need to survive.
This position, National Guard Family Assistance Center specialist, may be Ourada’s most rewarding ever. The only rival was his time as an infantry Marine, which in 2009 left him disabled.
“This work is my therapy,” Ourada, 30, told me.
And yet last Friday he resigned. Because the job he loved so much had left him homeless.
Ourada had his pay slashed in March, from $20.08 hourly to $13.17. He soon fell behind on mortgage payments and lost his Minnesota home. He’s been crashing with friends and family since August; next week he’ll move in with a buddy in Utah, where he hopes to find better-paying work.
Ourada’s situation is unusually dire, but he’s far from alone.
Hundreds of his colleagues around the country also had their pay cut by 25 to 50 percent in March. About a third have quit, taking their networks and collective decades of experience, in an exodus that leaves American military families at risk of falling through the cracks.
The root of the problem? A bungled government contract.
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.
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.
“Hire and train, hire and train. It’s been like that for the last three or four months,” says Kevin McDonnell, a Rhode Island-based supervisor whose own pay was cut in half.
This isn’t the first time a lowball bid led to draconian wage cuts and mass resignations on a military family support contract. It’s at least the fifth case in as many years, according to Good Jobs Nation, a worker advocacy group that filed Labor Department complaints on behalf of employees on two such contracts.
After I wrote about this problem in April, lawmakers grilled the National Guard about whether military families were getting the support they deserved. The Guard told Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) that it was undertaking a contract “review.”
And then ... nothing.
On Tuesday, I called the Guard to ask what happened. Lo and behold, that very day, it decided to “modify” the contract!
Cognitive sent a cryptic email to workers Wednesday saying “changes” to job descriptions and salaries were forthcoming. No further details. No mention of any back pay for the past eight months.
A Guard spokesman told me that a different office will handle the next bid process, which begins next month. The Labor Department will be asked to come up with minimum wage rates for these occupations, as should have happened last year.
Which sounds like an improvement. But for military families left stranded in recent months and workers such as Ourada who were shortchanged and have already moved on, it’s cold comfort.