Even though salaries for those who serve them in Senate cafeterias are so low that some workers are on food stamps and one is even homeless – senators are considering signing the company responsible for those low wages for another long term contract, Senate sources tell CNN.
That, as Senators and their aides around the halls of the Capitol are openly embarrassed and outraged in learning that many of the people who make their lunch every day or clean their toilets at night make such little money that they have to have second jobs or government assistance just to get by.
The Senate’s contract with Restaurant Associates, the company that won a bid in 2008 to run Senate restaurants, is up at the end of the year. Sources familiar with the negotiations say Senate Rules Chairman Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, whose committee is responsible for services like the cafeterias, has begun talks with Restaurant Associates to extend its contract.
Restaurant Associates runs cafeterias in some of the most well-known buildings in the country, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, to the Kennedy Center in Washington.
But the idea that it got the contract for the U.S. Capitol rankled some in the labor movement, since it is owned by a foreign company – Compass – which is based in Great Britain.
Since CNN and other media outlets late last week started shining a light on the real life consequences of low wages the company pays those working under the Capitol dome, Democratic Senators began calling on Blunt to pressure Restaurant Associates to raise employees’ salaries.
After watching a CNN profile last week about Charles Gladden, a Capitol worker who is in such financial straits that he has no home and sleeps on the streets, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin wrote a letter to Blunt urging him to push Restaurant Associates to give its employees a livable wage.
A group of workers – including Gladden – protested last week with a one day strike to demand the higher wages. The minimum wage for federal contract employees is $10.10 an hour.
“I work for the most powerful people in the country and there I am sleeping at a subway stop,” Gladden told CNN.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat on the Rules Committee, said he supports a “living wage for all of the restaurant workers.”
“We made that clear to the Chairman of the Rules Committee and we hope we can work something out to get that done,” Schumer said.
In response, Blunt, the Chairman, said “their concerns will be kept in mind as the contract comes up for renegotiation.”
“We appreciate the work of those who serve the Senate community and agree they should receive a fair wage. Currently, under a contract that has been in place for several years, the average Senate restaurant worker receives an hourly wage well above the minimum referenced in my colleagues’ letter,” Blunt said.
Compass declined to comment on negotiations with senators, but they insist Gladden makes $15.22 an hour.
Gladden’s labor representatives however argue that his actual salary is $4 an hour less - and the additional money is what is effectively a fine for offering him benefits he can’t afford.
Republicans may be in charge now, but Senate dining services were actually privatized by Democrats in 2008, when they held the majority. Until then, cafeteria workers were government employees.
In fact according to a Washington Post report at the time, food service workers in the Capitol made an average of $37,000 annually. Most employees were grandfathered in and kept government salaries and benefits as part of the privatization. But it gave no such protections for new workers – like Gladden. Many of them now make a fraction of that.
But Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Rules Committee Chairman in 2008, actually led the charge in privatizing the Senate cafeterias – calling them a money loser for the U.S. taxpayer.
In that same 2008 Washington Post story, reporter Paul Kane wrote that Senate restaurants run by the government were bleeding about $2 million a year.
In that same Washington Post story from 2008, reporter Paul Kane reported that without privatizing the Senate dining services, taxpayers would have had to subsidize to the tune of $250,000.
“Candidly, I don’t think the taxpayers should be subsidizing something that doesn’t need to be. There are parts of the government that can be run like a business and should be run like a business,” Feinstein said then, as she successfully pushed the Senate to vote to privatize their dining services.
But other Democrats at the time opposed the move – for fear of exactly what is happening now – workers who cater to the most powerful people in the world would end up with slashed wages, and trouble making ends meet.
Senator Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, spoke prophetically in 2008 about what it would mean.
“I know what happens with privatization. Workers lose jobs, and the next generation of workers make less in wages. These are some of the lowest-paid workers in our country,” he said.
Now, thanks to an executive order signed by President Barack Obama last year, Senate cafeteria workers and all federal contract employees earn a minimum of $10.10 an hour. But they are demanding more, which is what the strike was about last week.