The Biden administration has received ongoing attention for its actions to improve the lives of blue collar workers—from walking the picket line with striking autoworkers to ensuring that its signature investments in American industry create good jobs. Pundits and the press often point to actions to expand and raise standards in the construction and manufacturing sectors as central to the Biden administration’s economic agenda. Yet the administration has also taken numerous steps to boost the earnings and wealth of service sector workers, empower them to come together in unions, and hold accountable corporations that violate their rights.

Raising standards in the service sector affects workers across the economy—from baristas and call center workers to teachers and federal employees—and is essential to a strong middle class. Today, working-class Americans, defined as those without a four-year college degree, are primarily employed in service sector jobs. And research shows that policies to boost wages and benefits for service sector workers help narrow racial pay gaps, reduce turnover and support a well-qualified workforce.

This column highlights eight ways the Biden administration is helping service sector workers.

1. Advocating for service workers on the picket line During last summer’s wave of worker strikes and organizing actions, the Biden administration met with worker organizers from Starbucks, video game producer Sega, and other unions at the White House to celebrate workers’ organizing successes. According to White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, President Joe Biden expressed his “belief that worker power is essential to growing the economy from the middle out and bottom up.” In addition, the Biden administration has voiced support for labor actions by Hollywood actors and writers, as well as Amazon warehouse worker organizing. Furthermore, Biden administration appointees to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)—the independent agency that oversees union elections and enforces protections for private sector workers organizing unions and collectively bargaining—have issued several complaints and rulings against well-known companies such as Starbucks to remedy illegal activities, including retaliatory firings, withholding increases to wages and benefits, and closing stores.

2. Rebuilding federal employee bargaining rights Last spring, the White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment announced that among the 2.2 million federal civil service workers, the portion of employees in unions has grown by nearly 20 percent over the course of the administration. This tremendous growth was spurred by a series of actions that the administration has taken to ensure that federal employees know their rights and to allow new hires to engage with their union. Also, the administration repealed Trump-era actions that weakened public sector unions’ ability to connect with workers, represent them in employment disputes, and prevent politically motivated firings and retaliation—and it is taking action to prevent these workers from being stripped of employment protections without their consent.

3. Giving fast-food and outsourced workers a stronger voice at the bargaining table Biden administration NLRB appointees strengthened protections that help workers in service jobs—such as restaurant and hotel workers, janitorial positions and security officers, home care workers, farm laborers, and warehouse workers—as well as workers in other industries where multiple companies often control working conditions, exercise their bargaining rights and hold corporations accountable when they violate workers’ right to come together in unions. The new joint employer rule acknowledges that a company that signs a worker’s paycheck may not be the only company that controls workplace conditions, and it upholds requirements that corporations bargain with unionized workers over the working conditions that they have the authority to control. Previously, former President Donald Trump’s NLRB appointees adopted rules that made it easier for large corporations to escape liability for labor violations and avoid bargaining obligations by relying on smaller companies to supply their labor forces.

4. Preventing debt from derailing careers in public service The Biden administration reformed the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program in order to recognize the contributions that public service employees make to their communities and help prevent unmanageable debt from derailing careers. While the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately blocked reforms to provide relief to teachers, nurses, firefighters, and other public servants, in March, the Biden administration relaunched an updated program. In total, the administration has provided $62.5 billion in relief to more than 871,000 public servants. Prior to the Biden administration, only about 7,000 borrowers in total were approved for public service debt relief. In addition, the Biden administration has worked to expand high-quality pathways into teaching and other public sector work through registered apprenticeships: This year, it announced $200 million in grants targeting K-12 education occupations, public sector jobs, and other in-demand industries.

5. Raising pay and improving job quality for child care and long-term care workers The Biden administration has adopted reforms to improve the earnings of and job quality for well-qualified child and long-term care providers so that they can stay in these skilled and labor-intensive fields. The American Rescue Plan Act provided $350 billion in state and local aid that could be used to provide premium pay to government employees and private sector service workers it also provided more than $25 billion in funding to help expand and retain the well-qualified direct care workers who provide home care services—such as certified nursing assistants and home health aides—and $20 billion in child care stabilization funds, including $7.2 billion to raise pay for existing child care educators and $1.9 billion in additional earnings for new workers. For example, Washington state home care workers benefiting from American Rescue Plan funds reported improved “housing and food security, access to healthcare, mental health, savings, and well-being—as well as their ability and willingness to take and stay in these critical jobs.” In addition, the Biden administration issued an executive order instructing agencies to use their grantmaking and regulatory authority to improve compensation and job quality for this sector while increasing access and affordability for families. In order to do so, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services updated its grantmaking to improve child care provider payment rates and practices and increase access the U.S. Department of Labor created sample employment agreements for home care workers, nannies, and cleaners employed directly by families, who may not know their legal responsibilities and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued critical new protections to ensure that nursing homes have the staffing levels necessary for nurses and nurses’ aides to deliver safe, quality care for all residents.

6. Giving service workers on government contracts raises and better jobs The Biden administration has improved the lives of millions of contract workers who provide services for Americans across the country. Existing laws designed to ensure that service contractors respect workers’ rights and provide fair pay frequently fall short, leading to poverty wages and poor working conditions and disproportionately affecting women, Black, and Latino workers, as they are overrepresented in many of these industries. Days after taking office, the Biden administration announced that it would raise the contractor minimum wage to $15 per hour, index it to inflation, and close loopholes that exclude contract workers in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories. The administration also enacted protections to support job stability for service workers when contracts are rebid and closed loopholes that allowed companies to evade the standard by relocating required corporations that hire union-busting consultants to report their status as a federal contractor or subcontractor to the federal government as well as created a tip line that workers can call to report bosses who fail to disclose related activity and permitted agencies to attach labor and equity standards to jobs that are funded through federal grantmaking programs.

7. Making rights real through funding and enforcement In 2022, the Biden administration signed into law an omnibus spending bill that increased funding for the NLRB for the first time since 2014. And the administration continues to push for funding increases, proposing a nearly $21 million increase for the fiscal year 2025 budget. The increases come as the agency expands enforcement efforts and builds capacity to oversee union elections. Center for American Progress analysis finds that Biden appointees to the NLRB ordered corporations to reinstate more illegally fired workers in 2021—the first year of the administration—than during all four years of the Trump administration. And according to the Economic Policy Institute, petitions for union elections grew by 53 percent between October 2021 and September 2022. Similarly, the Department of Labor has introduced new initiatives to target industries where violations of wage standards are rampant, including warehousing and logistics, where investigators found violations in three-quarters of investigations. The Labor Department has also worked to increase compliance among government contractors, collecting more than $61 million in back wages for more than 27,000 service contract workers from January 2021 to March 2023.

8. Raising standards for service workers across the economy The Biden administration has taken an all-of-government approach to raising job standards, including numerous measures that will have significant impacts on service workers across a variety of occupations. The Department of Labor is updating standards to extend overtime protections to 3.6 million more middle-income workers and has issued protections to prevent corporations from evading these and other wage protections by misclassifying employees as independent business owners. Such misconduct is all too common in several service occupations such as landscaping, truck driving, home health, janitorial, and nail salon work. The NLRB has also updated regulations to boost efficiency in union elections and support communications between workers, and NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo is pursuing reforms that would insulate workers from high-pressure campaigns designed to undermine unionization efforts. In October 2023, the Biden administration issued an executive order requiring federal agencies to develop best practices to mitigate the harms and maximize the benefits of artificial intelligence for workers, as industry analysts predict that white collar service jobs are particularly exposed to disruption. In addition, the Federal Trade Commission has proposed banning noncompete agreements that prevent workers from changing jobs or starting new businesses—a move that would increase workers’ earnings by an estimated $300 billion per year and expand career opportunities for 30 million Americans. Finally, the administration created the White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment “to promote [the] Administration’s policy of support for worker power, worker organizing, and collective bargaining.” The task force has issued nearly 70 recommendations, including reducing barriers to organizing, protecting organizing workers from illegal retaliation, and establishing more resources on unions and collective bargaining.

The Biden administration is advancing reforms to boost American workers’ earnings and wealth, empower them to unionize and bargain, and hold lawbreaking corporations accountable.

Conclusion

The Biden administration is advancing reforms to boost American workers’ earnings and wealth, empower them to unionize and bargain, and hold lawbreaking corporations accountable. By focusing on workers in the service sector as well as those in construction and manufacturing, the administration is helping reach working-class Americans, narrow racial pay gaps, and strengthen the middle class.
Karla Walter is Senior Fellow, Inclusive Economy