Close to 100 cleaning and concessions contract workers from various federal facilities in Washington walked off their jobs and marched to the White House to protest what they called taxpayer-funded “poverty jobs”.
Workers from Union Station, the Smithsonian Museums, the Ronald Reagan building, and the Old Post Office were joined by supporters from Good Jobs Nation and other groups who petitioned President Obama to sign an executive order to raise the labor standards for employees of federal contractors.
Currently, employees of contractors are paid a fraction of what they would receive if they were directly employed by the federal government. Often wages are low enough that they qualify for food stamps and Medicaid. Right now, the minimum wage in Washington D.C. is just $8.25 an hour – above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 but still less than the $10.60 starting wage for Washington’s federal pay scale. D.C.’s minimum wage is also nowhere near the $12.50 an hour in wages and benefits that a living-wage bill would have required large retailers in the city to pay their workers had mayor Vincent Gray not vetoed the measure earlier this September.
The workers took the dramatic action of temporarily walking away from their jobs to raise awareness about their impoverishing working conditions. The federal government is the largest low-wage employer in the country; many of its employees are paid such low wages that they are unable to afford basic needs like food, clothing, and even rent.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., appeared at the demonstration and spoke in sympathy with the workers. “Our demand is simple: pay workers a decent wage and provide decent benefits,” he said.
The White House could raise the pay of low-wage workers by capping taxpayer-subsidized contractor executive pay. On Wednesday, Demos, a progressive think tank, released a report that made that recommendation. It references a Government Accountability Office finding that states “that taxpayers subsidize more than $760,000 per year toward the compensation of contracting executives who often earn millions of dollars annually.” Demos reports that between $20.8 billion and $23.9 billion each year goes to executive pay at companies with federal contracts. Recouping just $7 billion would free up enough taxpayer money to raise wages at companies by $6.69 per hour.
Religious leaders outside of the White House’s North Lawn spoke on behalf of the workers and offered words of prayer from various faiths and denominations. Rev. Jennifer Butler from Faith in Public Life said it is “common sense” to create a living wage for federal workers with which they could afford “basic needs to support [their] families.” Given the minimal wages and lack of benefits given at many federal jobs, she said she “cannot be silent when another human being is not being treated with dignity and respect.”
A spokesman for the Islamic Circle of North America addressed the extremely wide gap between officials and low-wage workers by stating “your dinner table must not be different from the dinner table of your workers.”
One of the demonstrators, Lanette Justin, is working as a fast-food worker at Union Station while also enrolled in school to become a nurse. Justin, a liver transplant recipient, requires special medications, with bills so high that one prescription costs her more than $2,000. Being paid just $10.25 per hour, Justin said that it is “impossible” for her to survive without Medicaid benefits to cover her “remaining medical bills” and nursing school tuition.
Lucila Ramirez, a federal employee at Union Station, said, “I get paid just $8.75 per hour. I’ve been working here for over 20 years. We don’t have any benefits. We don’t have sick days, vacation days, or holidays.”
What makes it harder to survive on such a low wage, Ramirez said, is “I only get 10 hours per week. I used to work thirty hours; now just 10.”
Members of various organizations also attended the rally in support of workers. James Adams from Our DC, a nonprofit organization that focuses on “bringing good jobs to the District,” said that many of these federally contracted jobs are a “sentence to poverty” and the low wages are a “handcuff to public assistance.”
Adams also supports the need for presidential leadership on the issue of living wages. “Shareholders and stockholders’ moral compasses are broken. We need the president to establish the lead.”
Federal contract workers are in urgent need of a living wage. No longer should they endure low pay and shortened hours. Wednesday’s rally brought these key issues directly to the White House, and President Obama must listen. Until changes are made, however, workers will have little choice but to suffer. As for Ramirez, “My supervisors say that if I have anything to complain about, ‘the door is right there’.”