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Senators Working to Address Food Service Worker Issue

Schatz called for higher wages for Senate workers. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

More than six weeks after reports of low-paid Senate food-service workers shocked lawmakers, senators are in the process of finding the best avenue to address the situation.  

At a June 11 markup for the Senate Legislative Branch Appropriations bill, the senators in charge of the subcommittee of jurisdiction said they will continue to work on the issue while the Senate's food service contract is in flux.  

"We have people who work for the Senate cafeteria who literally are impoverished," said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee's ranking member. "And whatever your view on [the] so-called living wage or unionization or minimum wage, we’re the employers in this instance. ... We ought to, as a matter of conscience, make sure that everybody that works for us is able to do so without being impoverished. I have assurance from [Chairwoman Shelley Moore] Capito that we will continue this conversation."  

When asked about any potential actions her panel could take, Capito, whose home state of West Virginia has long dealt with worker and poverty issues, said she had spoken with Schatz. She said they are still in initial discussions with the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, which oversees Senate contracts, and called it "premature" to discuss action.  

“We had talked about it, and we have discussed with Chairman [Roy] Blunt of the Rules Committee because he is working with this issue as well," Capito told CQ Roll Call after the markup. "I think we’re both in accord that we want to see people working in the Capitol, making a wage where they can support their families.”  

The Senate food service contract with Restaurant Associates is set to expire in the coming months, which Blunt said provides a prime opportunity to address the issues of hours and wages for workers.  

“The good news on dealing with all those issues is that the seven-year contract is up," the Missouri Republican said in the Senate Basement on June 10. "And it was negotiated by Sen. [Dianne] Feinstein as two seven-year extensions that are not automatic, so I think that gives us the chance to revisit a number of issues and we are,” he said, referring to the time the California Democrat chaired the Rules Committee.  

This week, the House announced Restaurant Associates would no longer be its food service vendor . “We’re looking at their contract and who bid and who didn’t bid," Blunt said of the House contract, "trying to figure out what we can learn from what they’ve done there.”  

Rules and Administration ranking member Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., also said on June 10 that negotiations about worker wages were ongoing. "We’re trying to get it done," Schumer said on the Senate Subway. Schumer had previously voiced support  for raising the wage for Capitol food workers to $15 an hour. Schumer declined to go into specifics, but said they were trying to "work it out with the chair and Restaurant Associates" and "it’s a little more complicated than you’d think."  

As lawmakers and staff work behind the scenes, Schatz's one-minute statement about the Senate food workers stood in stark contrast to debate in the House over the same issue.  

During the House Appropriations Committee markup of its Legislative Branch bill on April 30, lawmakers debated food service wages for nearly 30 minutes after Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., offered an amendment to ensure food service workers were paid a "livable wage." The amendment was not adopted, with some members arguing it was not within the jurisdiction of the appropriations process.  

The question of jurisdiction appeared to be behind the decision not to attempt to include a provision about food workers in the Senate bill.  

"My understanding is the food service issues are handled by the Rules Committee and that wouldn’t be a natural part of the discussion in the leg branch budget hearing," Capito said on June 2 when approached about the issue. Schatz confirmed this was one of the areas of disagreement on the largely bipartisan spending bill.  

“I think procedurally you can make an argument for it being handled in leg branch or in the full committee or in Rules," Schatz said on June 2. "But in the end, it’s a question of funding priorities. And with the Republicans in charge, they’ve just decided it’s not important to pay a living wage to the people who make the U.S. Capitol work and I think that’s wrong."  

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