Senators remind colleagues about Capitol contractors amid coronavirus

Architect of the Capitol has directed contractors to provide paid leave to workers confirmed to have COVID-19

A Capitol worker holds two containers of Clorox wipes as he walks through the Senate subway in Washington on Thursday, March 12, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
A Capitol worker holds two containers of Clorox wipes as he walks through the Senate subway in Washington on Thursday, March 12, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 12, 2020 at 5:54pm

Three lawmakers are urging protections for contract workers who serve the Capitol in food service, custodial and other roles from burdens the coronavirus epidemic may pose, as Congress takes steps to protect themselves and their salaried staff.

Democratic Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois wrote to the Senate Rules and Administration and the House Administration committees to ask them to consider the impact of changes to congressional operations for the contract workers and policies that could be implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

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“Given the Legislative Branch’s extensive reliance on contract workers for a range of functions, including food service and janitorial work, we write to urge that you attempt to address the potential financial hardship for these workers if they have to self-quarantine due to COVID-19 or in the event the Congress adjourns for a prolonged state work period as a social distancing measure,” wrote the lawmakers.

Warner, Brown and Durbin wrote that the contract workers may not be able to follow basic public health recommendations like staying home when ill, working remotely and seeking medical care if infected, because of financial hardship from lost wages or high health care costs.

“We strongly urge that you attempt to address the potential financial hardship for Congress’ support workforce if they have to self-quarantine during this time or have their work schedules unexpectedly disrupted as the result of changes to congressional operations,” they wrote. “In order to limit the spread of COVID-19, Congress must lead by example by committing that economic uncertainty will not deter these dedicated public servants from following public health guidance during the response.”

As the legislative schedule teetered on uncertainty Thursday, some Senate food service workers voiced concerns to CQ Roll Call about the risks of being in close interaction with people, food and cash all day amid the health crisis. They weighed the risks against the potential for lost wages if their shifts were to be cut.

The senators praised the Architect of the Capitol decision to direct contractors to provide paid administrative leave to any worker who has been confirmed to have COVID-19. But that could pose a challenge because testing remains limited, and even ill and symptomatic individuals have been denied tests across the country.

“We believe more expansive accommodations must be established to protect the public health and ensure workers don’t experience significant financial hardship in the wake of guidance from public health authorities,” the senators wrote.

Contract workers operate in every corner of the Capitol complex, which hosts 3 million to 5 million visitors each year. Approximately 60 percent of those visitors come to the Capitol complex between March and July.