On February 12th, 2014, President Barack Obama signed Executive Order 13658, raising the hourly minimum wage for all federally contracted employees to $10.15/hr (as of January 1st 2016). This may be an article that already causes your eyes to glaze over, as it would have for all of us at Summit Achievement a year ago. Perhaps you picture “federal contractors” like we did: defense contractors, big time developers, and other multi-billion dollar corporate types. However, February 12th, 2014 may end up being a day that lives in infamy as it put the field of wilderness therapy on a collision course with national politics, facing outcomes and ramifications that few have stopped to consider. The picture begins to come into focus as one considers that virtually all wilderness therapy programs operate on federal land and, therefore, possess a federal contract. All of the sudden, the term “federal contractor” becomes a bit fuzzy. Perhaps your reaction will be similar to mine: “Surely President Obama didn’t mean us!” However, this executive order was intentionally written to be broadly encompassing.
President Obama was asked directly if he intended this order to apply to outdoor professionals and guide outfitters (he doesn’t even know how hard therapeutic field staff work!). He responded that “Even the best job on earth deserves a better minimum wage.” While the nuances of this order can be discussed in great detail, for the sake of brevity, suffice it to say that it will eventually apply to us all (I will be conducting a NATSAP Webinar on this topic on May 20th). What is interesting about this order is that it only goes into effect when a federal contractor signs a new contract or makes modifications to an existing one on or after January 1st, 2015. Therefore, if a federal contractor hypothetically signed a 10-year contract on December 31st, 2014, they would not be impacted by this executive order legally until they signed a new contract in 2024. Thus, the legal implications of this order will likely be a slow wave that moves through the field of wilderness therapy as more and more programs sign new contracts and are forced to wrestle with its impact on their bottom line.
As an administrator of an organization faced with signing a new contract with the Forest Service January of 2016, this executive order was of great interest. What does this really mean for an organization? From a dollars and cents perspective, this means jumping from a base pay built upon Maine State minimum wage of $7.50/hr to one based upon a federal minimum wage of $10.15/hr. This marked a significant six figure increase in payroll and a jump in our starting pay from $130/day to $180/day. While those are perhaps figures that can make any leadership team start to sweat, we took a step back and found that the questions for us were: “How much do we value field staff?”, and “Are we really going to fight an increase in their pay?”
It should be no secret that any school or program is only as good as the staff they hire, train and retain. Clients in our program are most directly impacted by their relationships with the field staff who spend the most time with them. In a political climate where minimum wage is talked about on a daily basis and numerous states are debating increases in their minimum wage, were we going to be ahead of the curve or behind it? While we are always quick to praise our field staff, this executive order has challenged us to put our money where our mouth is. Framed this way, we knew that there was no debate. As an organization, we implemented the new minimum wage and increased our base-pay a few months before we signed our new contract as a way of demonstrating to our staff that we were not just doing this because we had to, but because we believed in them and the quality of their work.
We know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the quality of our programming and the 20 years of service we have provided are directly proportional to the amazing work done by all of our employees, but particularly by our field staff. While other areas, such as our marketing budget, have had to suffer as a result, we are confident that the right decision was to re-invest in what has brought us our success for 20 years: our field staff.
by Nichol Ernst, LCSW, Executive and Clinical Director, Summit Achievement