“You know, those Capitol janitors will not get as much overtime. I’m sure they think less pay, that they’re taking home, does hurt.”
— Gene Sperling, director of the White House economic council, on ABC News’ “This Week,” March 3, 2013
“On the issue of the janitors, if you work for an hourly wage and you earn overtime, and you depend on that overtime to make ends meet, it is simply a fact that a reduction in overtime is a reduction in your pay.”
— White House spokesman Jay Carney, news briefing, March 4
At a news conference last Friday, President Obama claimed that, “starting tomorrow,” the “folks cleaning the floors at the Capitol” had “just got a pay cut” because of the automatic federal spending cuts known as the sequester.
The president very quickly earned Four Pinocchios for that statement, especially after senior officials at the Architect of the Capitol (AOC), the federal agency that employ janitors on the House side, and the office of the Sergeant at Arms (SAA), which employs janitors on the Senate side, issued statements saying the president’s comments were not true.
Still, the White House has kept up its spin offensive, claiming that a cut in “overtime” was a de facto pay cut and thus the president was right — or at least not wrong.
So, we wondered: How much overtime do Capitol Hill janitors actually make?
First of all, we should note that the White House’s story kept evolving as we reported last week’s column. It’s almost as if the president’s aides had to scramble to come up with reasons why the president could be correct, without actually knowing the facts.
So, when we forwarded to White House aides an AOC memo saying no furloughs were planned, White House aides latched onto a line about overtime reductions. For a couple of hours, we were also told that the janitors were on contract — and contracts were being curtailed. But that line of reasoning turned out to be incorrect. Then, after the statements from the Capitol were issued, there was no longer any response.
But, as seen by the quotes above, the talking point about “overtime” did not fade away.
AOC officials declined to discuss janitor compensation, but SAA officials were willing to share details. Given that the AOC and SAA janitors essentially work side by side, it is reasonable to assume that the pay statistics are roughly similar.
Bret H. Swanson, assistant sergeant at arms for operations and the manager of cleaning technicians, said 27 people are employed on the night cleaning shift and 16 people on a day shift; a majority of the cleaning takes place at night. There is a differential for the overnight shift, so the night janitors earn an average of $51,644 a year and the day janitors earn an average of $49,481.
And the overtime pay? It averaged $304 per employee in fiscal year 2012 and $388 per employee thus far in the current fiscal year. “Cleaning technicians do not earn what I would consider to be a great deal of overtime pay,” Swanson said.
In other words, overtime amounts to only pittance of the overall pay — about $6.50 a week on top of wages of $1,000 a week. That’s much different from Carney’s claim of having to “depend on that overtime to make ends meet.”
Indeed, even before the sequester was implemented, Capitol Hill janitors have already earned more overtime pay than they did in all of last year. Swanson said the higher amount so far this year is because of “the demands of beginning a new Congress and hosting a presidential inauguration during a weekend that also included a federal holiday.”
Swanson said that, as reported, SAA would work on trying to drive down overtime requirements for employees for the rest of the year. But, for the rest of the sequester, the janitors are already ahead of the game.
A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
The Pinocchio Test
We don’t try to play gotcha here at The Fact Checker. When Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) was ridiculed for saying last week that 170 million jobs would be lost because of the sequester, we dropped our inquiry when we realized she had corrected her statement — to the official Congressional Budget Office estimate of 750,000 jobs — later in the same news conference. Everyone makes mistakes, and that’s understandable.
The quicker the mistake is cleaned up, the better. As Education Secretary Arne Duncan showed this week, a little humility, even a bit late, can be a good thing.
But a clean-up brigade shouldn’t simply try to deflect and obfuscate. Apparently, the president assumed — incorrectly — that the janitors on Capitol Hill would get a pay cut. Rather than admit an error, White House aides doubled down on their talking points about overtime being essential to their livelihood, without actually knowing the truth.
Clearly, the sequester is hurting segments of the government and will cut the pay of some government workers. It would be better to focus on those people rather than imaginary victims.
Check out our candidate Pinocchio Tracker