A group of senators are pushing for Senate contract workers to be paid a "living wage" following reports of workers barely getting by.
"The U.S. Congress should be working to improve the economic security of middle class families across the country. We should start right here in the U.S. Senate," nine senators wrote in a letter sent Monday to the Senate Rules and Administration Committee. "We ask that you work with the Sergeant-at-Arms to require U.S. Senate contractors, including Restaurant Associates, the current food and restaurant service contractor, to provide a living wage, fair healthcare and other benefits, and that give employees a voice in their workplace," they continued.
The lawmakers did not exactly say what constitutes a "living wage." They did point to President Barack Obama's executive order that raised minimum wage for contractors in the executive branch to $10.10 an hour and encouraged the committee to "build on this minimum wage."
The letter comes after roughly two dozen contract workers from the Senate and the Capitol Visitor Center joined hundreds of federal contract workers who walked off their jobs to call for higher wages and collective bargaining rights. The protest was the first time Senate workers joined the strike and rally organized by Good Jobs Nation. The strike also spurred a Washington Post column about a Senate food service worker, Charles Gladden, who is homeless.
“It’s encouraging to see U.S. senators step up to address the problem of low wages here at the Capitol," Gladden said in a release announcing the letter. "No one who works in these buildings should be homeless or have to rely on public assistance or charity to feed their families.”
Gladden participated in the strike last week, which called on President Barack Obama to issue an executive order giving preference to contractors who allow for unions, provide benefits and pay $15 an hour. But an executive order would not affect the roughly 2,500 contract workers in the legislative branch. Still, the Capitol workers who went on strike hoped it would catch the attention of the lawmakers they service each day.
And it seemed to catch the attention of the nine senators: Democrats Richard J. Durbin of Illinois; Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut; Barbara Boxer of California; Sherrod Brown of Ohio; Bob Casey of Pennsylvania; Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts; Cory Booker of New Jersey; Mark Warner of Virginia, and independent Bernard Sanders of Vermont.
Sanders was the only senator who spoke at the rally outside the Capitol on April 22, and he told CQ Roll Call the calls for livable wages should also apply to congressional contracts. A spokesperson for the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms said last week there are between 100 and 200 contractors in the Senate at any point in time.
The call for higher wages also comes as Senate workers are battling a pensions freeze. In 2008, the Capitol privatized dining services, transferring dining duties from the Architect of the Capitol to a contract with Restaurant Associates. The transfer led to a pension freeze for Senate workers, though members of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee have indicated they were reviewing the benefit freeze issue.
In their letter,the senators did not ask that a new contract be negotiated to ensure higher wage. Rather, the lawmakers asked that the panel "provide a preference" to contractors who pay higher wages, offer benefits and allow for collective bargaining "as the Committee considers current and future contract negotiations."
The Architect of the Capitol handles the Restaurant Associates contract for the Senate, with oversight from the Senate Rules Committee, though the current status of the Senate contract is not clear. According to a spokesperson with the Chief Administrative Officer, which oversees Restaurant Associates workers on the House side of the Capitol, the Restaurant Associates contract with the House ends Aug. 7.
“The CAO put out an RFP (request for proposal) in October for a new food services contract," Emily Goodin wrote in an email to CQ Roll Call Monday. "That contract is still in the procurement stage and we don’t discuss publicly contracts under procurement.”
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