Stop ‘raise theft’ at US Capitol

Just before Christmas, my co-workers who cook and clean at the Capitol and Senate got a surprise gift.  

After going on strike 7 times to highlight our struggles to survive on low pay and to fight for $15 and the right to form a union, we heard that we had won big raises.

The announcement by the Compass Group, our contractor, the Architect of the Capitol and the Senate Rules Committee touted that our “average wage” would go from $11 to nearly $15 an hour.  

But the announcement is more like political spin than a real win.   The truth is that not all low-wage workers at the Capitol and Senate got big raises. 

Many of us are victims of “raise theft” and we’re going to fight to make it right.

In fact, Senate cooks like Bertrand Olotara already filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor because Compass cheated them out of hundreds of dollars a month by illegally misclassifying them as “food service workers” instead of “cooks” under federal law.   That means that instead of getting a $3 an hour raise, they only got 30 cents even though they still cook breakfast and lunch for senators and staffers. 

A U.S. contractor should not be able to break U.S. labor laws, especially at the Capitol and Senate.

On top of using a shell game to cheat contract workers out their legal pay rates, Compass also shortchanged many of its employees. 

For example, I’m cashier at the Capitol Visitor’s Center and I only make $11.49.   My pay isn’t going up at all.  But other Capitol cashiers, like Sontia Bailey are seeing their wages rise to $14.

In other words, even though we do the same job at the same building for the same federal contractor, some of us are being paid lower wages.  

This two-tiered wage scale is unfair and has a real-life impact.

While Sontia can now start to think about quitting her second job and focus on having her first baby, I’ll still be struggling to keep my 3 kids out of poverty.   As a single mom, a minimal raise means that I will still be forced to use food stamps and Medicaid to put food on the table and keep my family healthy.

To add insult to injury, some low-wage workers did not get a raise at all. 

For example, the low-wage workers with disabilities, like Dewana Samuel, who clean the hallways of the Senate under a contract with Goodwill didn’t see any pay hikes.   In contrast, the hourly pay of workers like Charles Gladden who cleans the Senate cafeteria went up by several dollars. 

In addition, subcontracted temporary workers – hired by Compass to scrimp on pay – were until recently earning the DC minimum wage of $10.50 with no benefits.   Even though some of them have worked over 6 months with the promise of permanent work, they were all fired.

The truth is that Compass, Senate staffers and other legislative branch officials missed an important opportunity when they negotiated the Senate contract. 

Given that all low-wage workers at the Capitol and Senate – including those under the Goodwill and Capitol Visitors Center contracts – have been going on strike for $15 and a union, they should have set an across the board living wage and labor peace policy for all contracts and contract workers.  

But because all workers were excluded from the negotiation, we never got a chance to offer this proposal.   If we were at the table, we would have pointed out that playing shell games and introducing a two-tiered wage system will only lead to more strikes and negative publicity.

That’s why we are calling on Compass, Senate and legislative branch officials to make this right immediately.

Every low-wage worker should get a living wage, not just a select few.   And more importantly, every worker should have their voice represented when decisions about our pay and working conditions are made. 

That’s why we are going to keep fighting until every worker wins living wages and the right to join a union free from management retaliation.  

At the Capitol – the seat of our democracy – all work should be equally rewarded and all voices should be equally heard.