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Senate Democrats Call for Higher Wages for Capitol Food Workers

Brown led the effort to circulate the letter. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Nearly all members of the Senate Democratic Conference are calling for Capitol food service workers to receive higher wages and improved working conditions, according to a letter obtained by CQ Roll Call.  

"It is important that all Senate cafeteria and catering workers are able to do their jobs in a positive and supportive work environment," the senators wrote in a letter that's expected to be sent to the Senate Rules Committee by the end of the week. "If Restaurant Associates is unable to treat and compensate its employees appropriately, we urge you to terminate the contract and find a different vendor." The Senate is in the midst of renegotiating its contract with its food-service vendor, Restaurant Associates, which expires in December. Though the Architect of the Capitol has taken the lead in the negotiations, Senate Rules Chairman Roy Blunt, R-Mo., has to sign off on the contract. The letter is addressed to Blunt and Rules ranking Democrat Charles E. Schumer of New York.  

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, led the effort to gather signatures for the letter. Brown's office is still finalizing the list of signatures, and has not yet released the names of all of the signatories. But as of Wednesday evening, 40 senators had signed on to the letter, all members of the Senate Democratic Conference.  

"I have not talked to everybody in the caucus, but there is close to unanimity in the Democratic caucus that workers should get a fair wage and should get a living wage," Brown told CQ Roll Call as he exited a Senate briefing Wednesday night. "We want to make sure we say that emphatically for workers that work here. It’s a pretty expensive place to live.”  

Though the letter did not dictate a wage amount, Brown said a "living wage" would constitute $15 an hour. Schumer has already voiced his support of raising Capitol workers' wages to that amount. And Brown said he was hopeful Blunt would agree wages need to increase.  

"Sen. Blunt and Sen. Schumer ... seemed to want to move on this and to cooperate,” Brown said. "I’m optimistic, yeah, that they’ll do the right thing.”  

In addition to low wages, the letter also listed a number of other issues workers have raised about their employer. The senators noted that new workers, along with workers who transferred from the Architect of the Capitol to Restaurant Associates after the vendor took over the food services in 2008, "have registered ongoing complaints about reduced work hours and an intimidating work environment."  

The senators also called attention to worker complaints of fewer hours and that the company has "generally assigned work schedules that make it difficult to get a second job."  

"Restaurant Associates has also begun assigning fewer workers to catering events, leading to understaffed events and overworked employees," the senators wrote.  

The senators urged the Rules Committee to investigate and resolve these issues, and take them into consideration during the contract negotiations.  

The letter comes roughly three months after nine senators wrote a letter to the committee, also calling for workers to be paid a "living wage."  

Sontia Bailey, a food-service worker in the Senate Refectory, which is an à la carte shop on the first floor of the Senate, said in a statement Wednesday evening, "Workers deserve a living wage of at least $15 and the right to form a union without retaliation.  That is the only way we can guarantee we are treat with dignity and respect.”  

Bailey recently went on strike with roughly 40 other Capitol workers in July. The day of the strike, Bailey penned an op-ed in The Guardian detailing how her $10.59-per-hour wage at the Capitol forced her to get a second job at Kentucky Fried Chicken. She wrote that the exhausting workweek took a toll on her body, and she could not afford to take time off when she suffered a miscarriage. On Wednesday, another Senate worker wrote about her experience in The Guardian . The worker was only identified as "Kim," but she revealed that the low wages caused her to take a second job as a stripper to support her son.  

"It was the only job I could find that let me work a flexible schedule and earn a living wage," Kim wrote. "I don’t want to be a stripper: it can be demeaning to dance for men who show no respect for women. I only do it out of necessity, because I have to support my son."  

In addition to increased criticism from lawmakers, Restaurant Associates has also been the subject of recent charges of unfair labor practices at the Capitol. Last week, the National Labor Relations Board found merit in allegations that supervisors retaliated against workers after an April strike.