All service members would be guaranteed at least $15 an hour in yearly salary under a plan being revived by a bipartisan group of House lawmakers ahead of next year’s budget debate.
Last week, a group of 14 Democrats and Republicans sent a letter to House Appropriations Committee leaders urging them to set a “pay floor” of roughly $31,000 a year for all troops as part of future budget discussions, saying that anything lower hurts “junior enlisted service members who are struggling to make ends meet.”
Under the current military pay table, enlisted troops with less than two years of military experience earn less than $22,000 annually in base pay. It can take up to four years in service before that total goes above $32,000 a year, roughly equivalent to $15 an hour, the minimum wage that federal contractors are required to pay their workers.
“As wages and salaries increase across many industries economy-wide, the military is now falling behind in the competition for quality recruits, in large part to the base pay issue,” wrote the group, led by Reps. Marilyn Strickland, D-Wash., and Don Young, R-Alaska.
“As the number of qualified and willing people to serve continues to diminish, the ability of our military to recruit top talent is starting to become a national security issue. Congress must address this pay issue now before it becomes a more significant area of concern.”
Last summer, during budget debate in the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., offered a similar proposal as part of the fiscal 2022 spending plan. At the time, he called service members getting paid less than the defense contractor minimum wage rates “an insult” to military families.
That plan was scuttled because of technical issues, although appropriations committee leaders promised to raise the idea for debate in future budget discussions.
But military base pay totals do not factor in other stipends such as housing allowances, specialty pays and subsistence (food) assistance. Depending on where troops are stationed, the housing and food payouts combined can effectively double younger troops’ total military compensation.
For example, an Army private 2nd class (E-2) without dependents at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, is entitled to a housing allowance of $16,488 a year, and $20,988 a year of they have dependents. A Marine private first class (E-2) at Camp Pendleton, California, without dependents is entitled to a housing allowance of $25,236 a year, and $30,888 a year of they have dependents.
The latest letter comes as lawmakers prepare to start their work on the fiscal 2023 federal budget in early spring, although Congress still has yet to finalize a full-year spending bill for fiscal 2022, which began on Oct. 1.
In addition, as part of the annual defense authorization bill passed by Congress last week, lawmakers approved plans for a new Basic Needs Allowance to give additional financial support to some low-income service members. An E-3 with a family of four and a single military income for his or her household would qualify for the allowance.
But lawmakers lobbying for the salary boosts said those other offerings aren’t enough to make up for the low base pay.
“Not everyone receives full [housing stipends] or [food stipends], which results in many service members having wildly different discretionary incomes,” they wrote. “Service members and their families make an enormous sacrifice for our country, and inadequate compensation should not be one of these sacrifices.”
All service members are scheduled to see a 2.7 percent pay raise as of Jan. 1. For junior enlisted troops, that equals about $790 more a year in pay over 2021 levels.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.