Sequester spin: Obama’s false claim of Capitol janitors receiving ‘a pay cut’
“Starting tomorrow everybody here, all the folks who are cleaning the floors at the Capitol. Now that Congress has left, somebody’s going to be vacuuming and cleaning those floors and throwing out the garbage. They’re going to have less pay. The janitors, the security guards, they just got a pay cut, and they’ve got to figure out how to manage that. That’s real.”
— President Obama, news conference, March 1, 2013
This column has been updated with a new Pinocchio rating
This was a pretty evocative image the president offered at his news conference Friday on the sequester — janitors sweeping the empty halls of the Capitol, laboring at less pay.
When we first heard his remarks, we thought he was perhaps overstating matters. Even at federal agencies that have planned furloughs, none are expected to begin on Saturday; such actions are weeks away at many federal agencies. But that’s perhaps a minor rhetorical overreach.
But then our colleague Ed O’Keefe obtained the sequester plan released by the Architect of the Capitol, which employs Capitol Hill janitors on the House side. (The Sergeant at Arms employs the janitorial staff on the Senate side.) UPDATE: Obama’s remarks also prompted a warning from AOC officials that his comments were “not true.”
We have embedded an image of the first AOC document below. Stephen T. Ayers, the architect of the Capitol, listed a number of steps being taken to reduce expenses, including limiting new hiring and postponing repairs. This line jumped out at us: “We do not anticipate furloughs for AOC employees as a result of Sequestration.”
In other words, no pay is being cut for workers at the Architect of the Capitol. (We view an unpaid furlough as an effective pay cut.)
A White House official noted at first that the memo does refer to “further reducing overtime.” Technically, that could mean some janitors might see less pay, but it’s unclear how many actually earn overtime. Under the reasonable person test, a possible reduction in overtime appears a bit different from “just got a pay cut.”
The White House thought our position was unreasonable. “Folks who are getting paid hourly aren’t breaking up their paycheck to say, well, technically this portion of my paycheck came from my overtime pay, so I’m not going to actually count that towards my income,” an official said. “They rely on that overtime and they pay their bills with that income. So, we disagree with this ‘reasonable person test.’”
Then, another White House official asserted that the janitors--both part-time and full-time--are contracted out by the Architect of the Capitol. “Since the AOC said that the contracts would be reduced or eliminated, it’s hard to convincingly make the case those contract workers won’t be affected,” he claimed.
In other words, White House officials assumed there was an impact but they were not exactly sure themselves. We will also note that the president said the pay cut was happening “tomorrow.”
But this White House claim was also wrong. PolitiFact in 2009 quoted Eva Malecki, AOC communications officer, as saying that while there are a few contract workers, a majority of the janitorial staff “are federal employees.” We sought further clarification from her but then a memo that O’Keefe obtained late Friday nullified all of the White House’s assertions.
Indeed, Obama’s remarks at the news conference so alarmed Capitol Hill officials that an e-mail was sent by the Capitol building superintendent that comments that people who clean the building would get a cut in pay were “NOT true.” We have embedded the document below:
(The White House officials’ aggressive pushback of this column ended after we sent a copy of this email to them.)
On the Senate side of the building, Sergeant at Arms Terry Gainer said the cleaning technicians are his employees--not contract employees, except for setting up rooms for meetings and events.
“None of my employees will have their pay cut nor will they face furloughs assuming the cost saving strategies initiated months ago (hiring freeze, overtime reduction and delayed in equipment replacement etc.), in conjunction with a very aggressive early retirement program we began two weeks ago, reap the savings anticipated,” he said in an e-mail.
As for security guards at the Capitol, Gainer, who is chairman of the Capitol Hill Police Board, added:
“Our Centurions will face neither pay cuts nor furloughs; they are standing tall through sequestration and all. (We are saving $ by reducing overtime which is accomplished by closing doors of convenience, safety will not be compromised but health improved for visitors and staff by longer treks. )”
The Pinocchio Test
Obama’s remarks continue the administration’s pattern of overstating the potential impact of the sequester, which we have explored this week. But this error is particularly bad--and nerve-wracking to the janitors and security guards who were misled by the president’s comments.
We originally thought this was maybe a Two Pinocchio rating, but in light of the AOC memo and the confirmation that security guards will not face a pay cut, nothing in Obama’s statement came close to being correct.
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