$15 Minimum Wage for Soldiers?

Our junior enlisted members make far less than that.

Retired Army lieutenant colonel Anthony Dean has a commentary piece in the Military Times papers titled “Raise military pay to match minimum wage for federal contract employees.” As always with claims that servicemembers are underpaid, I was extremely skeptical. But he actually has a sound argument.

On April 27, 2021, President Biden boldly signed an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contract employees to $15 per hour. According to the accompanying White House fact sheet, this “ensures that hundreds of thousands of workers no longer have to work full time and still live in poverty.” In pursuing this laudable goal, the president has effectively made the federal minimum wage for unskilled contractor workers $31,000 a year.

My question is why is the contractor slinging hash in the mess hall making nearly 60 percent more than the private who is willing to risk everything for his country standing in the chow line? Currently, a new enlistee in the armed forces makes $1,650.30 per month, or roughly $19,803 annualized — an $11,400 difference. This works out to about $9.52 per hour — only if you make the fantastical assumption that new soldiers work only 40 hours a week. It takes a service member serving in the pay grade E-4 with three years of service to make the kind of scratch the dishwasher makes. To fix this, not only does pay for new enlistees need to increase by more than 57 percent, but the raise needs to be applied across the board. You cannot have privates making more than sergeants. Or sergeants more than lieutenants.

Now, let’s get past the hackneyed bits about the risks. Yes, some members of the armed forces take extraordinary risk for their country. Most don’t and, overall, the actuarial data rate soldiering as safer than all manner of jobs, from fishers to loggers and longshoreman to truck driver. But it’s true that, looking at base pay only, the most junior enlisted members make less than a $15/hour minimum wage assuming 40 hours/week at 52 weeks a year. To hit $31.000 a year on unadjusted base pay alone, one needs to be an E-4 with 3 years of service.

Yes, a lot of people start out above pay rate E-1 and most will get to E-3 and even E-4 very quickly. Still, looking at base pay only, that’s a lot of people making less than the proposed minimum wage.

Of course, even the most junior enlisted member gets great benefits. Free medical care on base or the rather Cadillac-caliber TRICARE off. Free housing and meals for junior enlisted in the barracks or tax-free subsidies for housing and meals for those living off base. There are enough variables as to make calculations impossible but, even so, these likely aren’t enough to take the very junior-most personnel up to $31,000 a year.

Regardless, Dean is honest about this:

Technically, military personnel are “salaried” employees, and pay is just one portion of an enlistee’s compensation package, that also includes housing, medical, educational benefits and a host of other things, including tax-free shopping at the PX. In fact, I fondly remember receiving a form along with my Leave and Earning Statement telling me how I was really swimming in dough based on the benefits I did not know I was receiving. That said, there is also the inherent danger in military jobs, the extended separation from family and friends, the limitations on personal freedoms, the routine 80-120 hour work weeks, and the miserable living conditions during training exercises. On the plus side, there is the bonus of deployments, where a sizable portion of the population is actively trying to kill you. You rarely get that slinging hash.

Again, I think Dean undermines his argument with constant appeals to the hazards of the job. And, frankly, despite the stories well tell ourselves, very few junior enlisted (or senior officers, for that matter) work anything like 80-120 hour work weeks. (The latter is more than 17 hours a day, 7 days a week. Nobody does that more than a day or two in a row, let alone routinely, unless they’re deployed—and even then, only if we count all their waking hours as “work” because they’re unable to go home.)

But, again, unless they’re stationed somewhere with a high cost of living and drawing an offsetting COLA, few junior enlisted are making $15/hour even assuming a standard workweek. (I suppose they’re doing better if we amortize the pay over 11 months, since they get 30 days’ paid vacation, but it still doesn’t translate to the $31,000 figure).

Then again, Dean’s point gets strengthened with this argument:

It is not only military pay that is now suddenly lagging in light of the recently signed executive order. A number of administration proposals, including two years of free college, student loan forgiveness, and increased access to free health care, are also undercutting many of the core benefits that the military uses for recruiting.

This is an excellent point. Right now, these are inducements used to get people to volunteer for what’s otherwise, frankly, often a rather undesirable job. It gets much better—attractive even–as one rises in rank and responsibility but, at entry level, it’s dirty, thankless work.

Dean spends the last several paragraphs, though, making what I think is the wrong point: that giving these benefits out for free will harm recruiting and retention. That’s almost certainly right, of course. But there’s a better argument that we shouldn’t put people in the position of “volunteering” for a job they didn’t otherwise want to do—and which, yes, comes with a not insignificant risk of getting shot at and, certainly, a near certainly of surrendering some basic freedoms—in order to get a subsistence wage, medical care, and an education.

Rather, Dean’s argument leads to the natural conclusion reached by his headline writer: we will likely need to pay junior enlisted folks more in an environment in which those basic necessities of modern living are simply taken for granted. And, yes, that will make our Defense budget, already overburdened with high personnel costs, even more strained.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Military Affairs
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Sleeping Dog says:

    To be a bit sarcastic, isn’t being in the military something like the priesthood; three squares a day and all the black green clothes you can wear? It seems that any objective discussion on comp for members of the military will require setting a value on the spiff that members are eligible (housing, meals etc). Otherwise it is apples and oranges.

    9
  2. Jen says:

    As Sleeping Dog notes, I’m not sure of the effectiveness of this argument because the “also has” are pretty significant.

    Housing, meals, and clothing are not insubstantial costs. Add to that duty-free shopping if you buy at the PX or commissary, and you are getting into amounts that do add up.

    It would be interesting to see that analysis. I’d love to see a base-by-base comparison of the equivalents–how much rent + food + clothing + health care is for the “contractor slinging hash in the mess hall” vs. the enlisted personnel and see where things end up.

    5
  3. Kathy says:

    You cannot have privates making more than sergeants. Or sergeants more than lieutenants.

    From what I’ve read about, and from, career sergeants, many would disagree with the latter part of the quote.

    8
  4. Bnut says:

    I’ve been out ten years now. Are they still doing the post 911 GI bill or have they refurbed it again? When that came along it was magical. With so few deployments these days I don’t know who is getting it now, or how many people oit applies to. Maybe someone can clear it up.

    2
  5. steve says:

    IIRC my first paycheck as an E-1 I received under $100 but cant remember if it was for 2 weeks or a month. Housing was free but it was in a barracks shared with somewhere between 2 and 50 guys depending upon where I was in the process. When I was E-2 I made a bit more but again, living on base I lived in the barracks. Had a single room, but no door (only a curtain) and it was maybe 8×10. The value of the meals? Having grown up fairly poor you could have almost all you wanted which I thought was nice, but really the food was pretty bad. SOS really tasted like SOS. I had a part time job after the first year and most of that money went towards beer and better food. Those benefits weren’t so great if you ask me. Hope its better now.

    Steve

    3
  6. CSK says:

    @Bnut:
    It pays full tuition at a public university, and up to 25,000+ at a private one. You also get a housing allowance of (I think) $1000 a month.

  7. James Joyner says:

    @Sleeping Dog: @Jen: This is covered in the post. The only way we monetize food and housing is for those living off-base and receiving BAS and BAH. They’re actually quite small (combined ~$450/month) and fall well short of bringing base pay up to $31,000.

    @Kathy: I haven’t run the comparisons lately but, when I was in, I made less as a 2LT than did senior SSGs and SFCs under my leadership. But the promotion to 1LT (at 2 years of service) put me ahead of the 1SG (~18 years in) and even junior CPTs (~4 years service) make more than all but the most senior CSMs (~25-30 years).

    2
  8. Michael Cain says:

    I have no idea how military pensions are structured these days. How much would a civilian have to set aside each month in order to get a similar payout?

    5
  9. Gawaine says:

    Some modest counter points, or at least flavoring. Though maybe it’s only the Navy getting beaten up… those are the only early enlisted folks I’m on good terms with.
    * It’s true that many military folks aren’t exposed to much danger. However, they all have the risk of danger. That is: When they sign up, they are signing up for a job that may tell them that they’re going to be deployed, even if they thought they were signing up for something safe. Many Navy folks found themselves in the middle of Afghanistan on-loan to help their fellow services, when they thought they’d be safely ensconced on a ship.
    * Navy enlistees work crazy hours, all the time, when they’re on deployment, especially when they first join up. I can’t say it’s over 80 hours constantly, but it’s in the 70-80 hour range on some ships, for some rates. Why? Not enough people trained for some specialties, mixed with a chore chart that sticks people with kitchen, cleaning, etc. duties. When not on deployment, they get to clean the ship while also fixing the list of problems that were found in aging equipment at sea.
    * TRICARE as Cadillac-level astounds me. I’ve got both Army and Navy friends who’re traveling 3 hours or more to find out that their doctor won’t see them.

    1
  10. R. Dave says:

    In addition to the non-cash benefits received during service, I think the retirement package, disability benefits, hiring preferences, and state-level tax breaks, have to be a huge part of the analysis, right? A good friend of mine served something like 12 years and “retired” as a major with something like $3k/mo of pension and disability benefits (medical, not combat related, and honestly not even remotely “disabling” in the ordinary sense of the word) for the rest of his life, free college for both his kids, and since he lives in Texas, zero property taxes on his house as a veteran. Not sure if enlisted get anything like those benefits, but nowhere in the civilian world would someone that’s essentially middle management have a retirement/severance package even close to that.

    3
  11. CSK says:

    @Gawaine:
    I can’t resist asking: How’s it going since you relieved The Green Knight of his head? And have you kept up with Golagros?

  12. a country lawyer says:

    In December of 1965 in the auditorium across the railroad tracks from where James goes to work every day, I was commissioned as a second lieutenant. If I remember correctly my pay was $295 a month and went up to $304 on the following January 1st. After I got to Pensacola and began flight training I received an extra $100 a month flight pay. I felt so rich that I went out and bought my first car, a fully loaded 1966 GTO. It cost me $2,700. I wish Is still had it.

    5
  13. Jen says:

    @James Joyner: It is touched on in the post, yes. But it’s still not an apples-to-apples comparison, and cannot ever be. We could also delve into intangibles, like the degree to which a “contractor slinging hash” has far less employment security, and then look at things like opportunity to cut hours at a whim, etc.

    My point, which was poorly made, is that while neither of these are glamorous jobs, they aren’t really comparable. Yes, enlisted personnel should make a livable wage. But I don’t really think it’s logical to compare them to contractors.

    2
  14. James Joyner says:

    @R. Dave: @Jen: So, it’s certainly fair to point out longer term differences. But the point is that Biden is saying that everyone he has the power to control via EO should make $15/hour, which translates to a minimum of $31,000 a year. These folks don’t make that.

  15. Mister Bluster says:

    @a country lawyer:..fully loaded 1966 GTO.
    I graduated from High School in June of 1966. One of my classmates got a brand new ’66 GTO for graduation from his parents. He insisted that I drive it at least around the block.
    Little GTO
    Ronnie and the Daytonas

  16. Scott says:

    If you want to explore total compensation here is a place to start.

    https://www.military-ranks.org/air-force/airman-basic-pay

    2
  17. Michael Cain says:

    A question just occurred to me: can the President actually change the overall basic pay levels that much? I know he can set the annual cost-of-living increase to be different from the statutory formula. And I know that certain ranks have salary caps set by statute. Can he simply say “Everyone gets a 20% raise next year, subject to other statutory limitations.”? He would need a billion or three or five dollars to implement the change; can he do that within the form of the current Defense appropriation, or would Congress have to find money for it? Is the reason Biden raised the pay rates for “federal contract employees” because he lacks authority to change it for Civil Service or the military?

  18. Mikey says:

    @James Joyner:

    The only way we monetize food and housing is for those living off-base and receiving BAS and BAH. They’re actually quite small (combined ~$450/month) and fall well short of bringing base pay up to $31,000.

    Dude…housing allowance for a single E-1 stationed at Quantico is over $2K a month–almost $25K a year. If he/she is married, it’s $30K a year.

    Base pay plus subsistence allowance plus housing allowance for a married E-1 stationed at Quantico is over $56K a year.

    And only the base pay is subject to income tax. The rest is tax-free.

    And as you mentioned, the free health care. And the 30 days of vacation a year, which no entry-level private sector employee gets. Hell, most of them never get a vacation allowance like that in their entire working lives. Certainly no hash-slinging contractor will.

    Take a look at the post-9/11 GI Bill. Holy shit is that a bunch of money.

    This comparison isn’t even apples and oranges, it’s apples and zeppelins.

    10
  19. James Joyner says:

    @Mikey: I alluded to COLA multiple times in the post. And, yes, someone in the NCR may make more than their base pay in housing subsidy. But BAS and BAQ aren’t much.

    I just don’t think we can say “well, you get health care” and discount their salary accordingly. If you’re 18 and single, it’s irrelevant.

    1
  20. Teve says:

    When I worked, up til last year, for a major carrier slinging cell phone contracts, I made ~$50k/yr. And the CEO made dozens of millions while fucking the company royally with a disastrous entertainment deal that they’re going to lose dozens of billions on. The CEO of McDonald’s is going to make $11 million this year and millions of Fox News viewers will claim that the people who make his burgers and fries deserve to be on welfare. Now I sling Ashley sectionals and Liberty bedroom sets and Tempur-pedics and I’m going to make ~$60k/year.

    That poor and middle-class people in America are wasting their time arguing that their peers don’t deserve to make 30k a year is psychopathic.

    8
  21. Michael Cain says:

    @Teve:

    That poor and middle-class people in America are wasting their time arguing that their peers don’t deserve to make 30k a year is psychopathic.

    We are still struggling to overcome the 1960/70s vision of the military. An 18-year-old with no spouse or children has food, clothes, shelter, and medical care suitable for an 18-year-old draftee. We have not figured out how to deal with a 24-year-old highly-trained specialist at killing with a wife and two kids.

    3
  22. EddieInCA says:

    @a country lawyer:

    . I felt so rich that I went out and bought my first car, a fully loaded 1966 GTO. It cost me $2,700. I wish Is still had it.

    I’ll sell it back to you, just double the price, and add a zero. 🙂

  23. EddieInCA says:

    @a country lawyer:

    Yes. I am an asshole.

  24. Tim says:

    @James Joyner:

    But the promotion to 1LT (at 2 years of service) put me ahead of the 1SG (~18 years in) and even junior CPTs (~4 years service) make more than all but the most senior CSMs (~25-30 years).

    According to the current tables, an O-2 (1LT, LTJG) at 2 years of service makes $4443 per month, while an E-7 (SFC, MSgt, CPO, GySgt) with 12 years of service makes $4562 per month. An O-3 (CPT, LT) with 4 years of service makes $6023 per month and an E-9 (SGM, CMSgt, MCPO, MGySgt) with 16 years service makes $6115 and an E-8 (MSG, SMSgt, SCPO, MSgt) with over 24 years of service makes $6104.

    It appears the gap has narrowed quite a bit since you (and I) served.

    1
  25. Tim says:

    @Michael Cain:

    a 24-year-old highly-trained specialist at killing

    You talk about overcoming the 1960’s/1970’s vision of military members as 18-year old draftees but then you provide the stereotypical description above of military members as trained killers?

    Aside from direct combat arms specialties (and they are definitely the minority in today’s military), today’s young enlisted military members are more likely to be highly trained technicians in many different fields. You’d be surprised at the numbers of enlisted personnel who leave the service with, not just Associates and Bachelors degrees, but also Masters and even Doctorates. I personally worked alongside several Senior NCOs over the years who had their PhD and one with a JD. Of course, I worked intelligence in the Air Force so my perspective was quite a bit different than other services and disciplines.

    2
  26. DrDaveT says:

    There are enough variables as to make calculations impossible

    Not really.

    FWIW, you are vastly underestimating the value of the health care plan, the housing allowances, and (especially) the tax exclusions. Also, the amortized value of the veterans’ benefits down the road, which should be thought of as “deferred compensation”. Especially in the current climate, where nobody separates without some level of disability benefit. (The pension is even more insane, but I recognize that only a tiny minority make it to 20 years.)

    I don’t begrudge uniformed servicemembers their benefits, but it’s just silly to pretend that they are undercompensated compared to the private sector.

    4
  27. Jay says:

    @James Joyner: BAH alone for an E1 in Maryland is over $1400 per month. That alone along with the pay takes compensation well north of $15/hr.

    Enlisted are actually astoundingly well compensated.

    3
  28. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT:

    Not really.

    The main variable is locality adjustment, which can be massive. But there are dozens of potential specialty and special duty pays, although granted an E-1 is unlikely to qualify for most of them.

    FWIW, you are vastly underestimating the value of the health care plan, the housing allowances, and (especially) the tax exclusions. Also, the amortized value of the veterans’ benefits down the road, which should be thought of as “deferred compensation”.

    Aside from some odd jobs as a teenager, I’ve always been salaried rather than hourly. But my understanding of minimum wage law is that, aside from tipped employees (an exemption Democrats are hoping to eliminate) hourly workers are required to be paid the minimum hourly wage irrespective of other benefits. The restaurant can’t pay kitchen staff $3/hour on the basis that they are allowed to have a free meal and they run $40 per retail.

  29. wr says:

    I’m reading all these messages that point out all the extravagant benefits enlisted people receive, and I keep thinking about the WSJ editorial page talking about the “Lucky Duckies” who don’t have to pay federal income taxes because they are fortunate enough not to make enough money to cross even the lowest level of income.

    2
  30. James Joyner says:

    @Jay:

    BAH alone for an E1 in Maryland is over $1400 per month

    Again, the National Capitol Region is one of the most expensive and we compensate for that. But the same E-1 assigned to Fort Polk, Louisiana gets $699.00 without dependents. But, in both cases, only if they live off base—which is unlikely if they’re 18 and single. In which case they get bupkis. Yes, they get a free room, often shared. But, again, we don’t offset benefits against hourly wages for other employees.

    Enlisted are actually astoundingly well compensated.

    For someone with just a GED or high school diploma and no experience, absolutely. Compared to today’s economy. The point of the op-ed and my post, though, is to compare it to Joe Biden’s proposed economy in which everyone gets $15/hour ($31,000/year), paid leave, free college, etc. I’m happy to live in that world for a whole variety of reasons. But it will naturally mean upping the pay and benefits for enlisted soldiers.

  31. Jen says:

    @wr:

    I’m reading all these messages that point out all the extravagant benefits enlisted people receive,

    I’m not sure if you’re including me in this group, but my argument was the opposite. It’s not that the enlisted people are receiving extravagant benefits, it’s that the “hash-slinging contractors” are at a significant disadvantage because they do not have really any benefits at all.

    1
  32. Mikey says:

    OK, Dr. J., maybe I am misreading LTC Dean’s thesis. To me he seems to be asserting a $15/hour minimum for federal contractors creates enough competition with the pay and benefits a lower enlisted servicemember receives that it could actually impact military recruitment.

    My counterpoint is that there is no conceivable universe in which anyone seriously considering military service looks at the contractor’s $15/hour and says “I’ll do THAT instead.” Especially since the only way you get even an E-1 below $30K/year is to set the value of provided food and housing at zero, which I don’t accept as remotely valid.

    2
  33. R. Dave says:

    @wr: I’m reading all these messages that point out all the extravagant benefits enlisted people receive, and I keep thinking about the WSJ editorial page talking about the “Lucky Duckies” who don’t have to pay federal income taxes because they are fortunate enough not to make enough money to cross even the lowest level of income.

    Mm, it’s more like the WSJ editorial page talking about how teachers aren’t really as underpaid as it seems because their comp is just weighted more toward the tail in the form of a generous pension than toward the front in the form of wages.

    That said, at least for my part, I’m not opposed to increasing enlisted military comp (or teacher comp). I’m just saying that any discussion of comp has to take the entire comp package into account, not just the wage/salary portion. Honestly, I’d be very much in favor of shifting the comp package for enlisted people forward by increasing pay and decreasing retirement benefits. It’s probably easier to recruit with a bigger paycheck, enlisted people won’t feel quite as “trapped” into re-enlisting until they hit whatever minimum term is required to qualify for the retirement benefits, and from what I’ve read, as the pool of retired personnel grows, retirement benefits are consuming more and more of the DoD budget to the point of becoming unsustainable.

    1
  34. a country lawyer says:

    @EddieInCA: If it is mint it would be worth it.

  35. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @R. Dave:

    because their comp is just weighted more toward the tail in the form of a generous pension than toward the front in the form of wages.

    Which more than one state is reneging on doing because “wow! that’s a lot of money that we just don’t have since we put the pension trust funds toward general state obligations; we just can’t afford your ‘golden parachute’ pensions anymore and we’re not paying them.”

  36. wr says:

    @Jen: “I’m not sure if you’re including me in this group, but my argument was the opposite”

    Not really tracking (or caring) who is saying what — just noticing a general vibe, which struck me as odd because the names I did notice weren’t the usual “conservative” suspects. The whole damn county is just obsessed with the idea that someone who doesn’t “deserve” it could make more than ten dollars an hour…

  37. wr says:

    @R. Dave: ” “benefits are consuming more and more of the DoD budget to the point of becoming unsustainable.”

    And the solution is to slash benefits. Instead of actually taxing the people who are taking home millions or billions of dollars. Because we can never never never touch the pay of a hedge fund manager – that’s socialism. Instead let’s have veterans live in poverty. America!

    1
  38. wr says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: ““wow! that’s a lot of money that we just don’t have since we put the pension trust funds toward general state obligations; we just can’t afford your ‘golden parachute’ pensions anymore and we’re not paying them.””

    Yes. This is called “theft,” by the way. But as long as “conservatives” can scream that the pensions they promised to pay are actually socialism, then it’s a positive good to screw the workers.

    Oh, but we can’t let poor people get out of debt by declaring bankruptcy, because they made a contract and they have to live up to it or it’s a moral hazard.

  39. DrDaveT says:

    @wr:

    Instead let’s have veterans live in poverty.

    Veterans have more safety nets than any other demographic in America. Yes, there are veterans who live in poverty — but far fewer per capita than non-veterans. The VA (and an array of private veterans advocacy organizations) work harder than any other federal agency to make sure veterans are aware of the benefits they qualify for. And, despite your odd comment above, literally no one is lobbying to remove any of those benefits. The existence of homeless veterans is a frequently-cited national scandal, while the existence of homeless non-veterans is not. So what exactly are you mad about here?