Erica Gayles makes $7.50 an hour working at the Pentagon food court.
The Dunkin’ Donuts employee says that’s barely enough to cover living expenses.
“If I get sick and have to go to the doctor, not only do I have to pay out of my pocket, but I have less money for transportation,” said Gayles, 22, who is studying to be a medical assistant.
Gayles was one of about 50 Pentagon fast-food and janitorial workers who went on a one-day strike Wednesday to rally for higher wages. The hope, the workers said, is that President Obama will issue an executive order raising the minimum wage for government contractors.
The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour. The Pentagon workers did not ask for a specific increase in pay, but previous protests have called for up to $15 per hour.
“Too many Americans work full-time for federal contractors and live in poverty,” Rep. Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota and co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said in a statement.
Wednesday’s protest comes on the heels of a number of walkouts by fast-food workers throughout the country. In addition, it was the seventh strike in as many months by contract workers at federal buildings, including those at the Ronald Reagan Building, Union Station and Smithsonian museums.
The federal government employs roughly 2 million low-wage workers — more than Wal-Mart and McDonald’s combined, according to a study by public policy firm Demos. Roughly 200,000 of those employees work in the Washington area, where the majority receive less than $10 per hour, according to the National Employment Law Project, which advocates for low-wage workers. Four in 10 rely on programs such as Medicaid and food stamps.
Business groups argue that a higher minimum wage would force companies to scale back on the number of jobs they can offer. This is of particular concern, they say, in the fast-food industry, where profit margins tend to be slim.
“I don’t think [a higher minimum wage] would behoove the businesses or the workers,” said Michael Saltsman, research director at the Employment Policies Institute, a conservative think tank in the District. “If you raise the minimum wage, you’re creating an incentive for employers to seek self-service alternatives.”
Robin Law, though, disagrees. The 26-year-old, who works at Sbarro in the Pentagon, says her wages have not kept up with increases in the cost of living.
When she began her job eight years ago, Law earned $8 per hour. Eventually she worked her way up to an hourly rate of $10.10.
But when the 16-day government shutdown came around in October, her hourly pay was lowered to $8.75, roughly $350 a week before taxes.
“Workers like myself should have more wages and benefits,” said Law, who takes care of her 7-year-old son and aging mother. “The bills, sometimes they go unpaid until the next paycheck.”