August on Capitol Hill is, like many things in Washington, divided. Lawmakers take a summer break. But Sontia Bailey, a food service worker, doubles up on work, splitting her days between the Capitol, where she serves meals for most of the year to some of the nation’s most influential decision-makers, and KFC, where she serves decidedly cheaper fare to locals—and earns a little bit more per hour.
But neither job pays near enough, and that’s what she finally told Senator Sherrod Brown in a private meeting this week: She can’t survive on her current wage of about $10.60 serving delicacies at the Senate Refectory (her fast food gig pays $11), so she and hundreds of fellow Capitol workers have joined the “Fight for $15” movement.
For scores of private contract workers at Senate facilities, winning the labor demands that thousands of low-wage workers have rallied around nationwide—a $15 minimum wage and a union—would be a stark challenge to a government system in which the top public servants are served by an impoverished privatized workforce. After numerous protests by federal contract workers and two short strikes in April and July, a group of senators just issued a letter to pressure the food service contractor, Restaurant Associates, to meet the campaign’s demands.
Building on an earlier statement of support for the campaign by nine Senators, now more than forty Senators are urging immediate action by Rules Committee Chair Roy Blunt, who oversees the cafeteria contract, to “investigate” the cafeteria workers’ grievances in upcoming contract negotiations, with the condition that “If Restaurant Associates is unable to treat and compensate its employees appropriately,” the Senate’s operational managers “terminate the contract and find a different vendor.”
The case for higher wages is straightforward—the estimated living wage in DC is around $20 per hour for a family of four. President Obama recently issued a series of executive orders to raise the minimum pay and fair labor standards for many contract workers for executive agencies.