Two dozen federal grand jurors in Washington petitioned House and Senate judiciary committee leaders Monday asking for a raise in the $50-a-day maximum they are paid for 18 months of jury service, calling the rate "abysmal," below the minimum wage and a hardship.
Paying jurors fairly so courts nationwide run smoothly is not a new issue — the federal daily rate has not changed since 1990, when it had more buying power, and most states pay significantly less. What is unusual is a formal complaint signed by 24 members of two active grand jury panels whose work is highly secret.
The request offers a glimpse of the burden borne by people who serve a critical role in charging criminal defendants. In the case of the 24, they work on cases in the same federal courthouse — but not on the same matters — where special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is working with a grand jury to investigate Russian influence in U.S. political affairs and the 2016 presidential election.
Matters before federal grand juries are typically secret, and jurors and court staff members can face legal penalties if they disclose proceedings.
The petition signers did not discuss what they are working on but stated that they served on grand juries empaneled in November 2016, meaning they would have been seated before Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein announced Mueller's appointment in May.
"Court officials routinely tell us how much they value our service," said juror Elliott Negin, who organized the effort. "If the federal government truly valued our service, it wouldn't pay us poverty-level wages," added Negin, who is a senior writer at the Washington office of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science advocacy organization headquartered in Cambridge, Mass.
About 54,000 people served on federal juries last year, including about 100 on six federal grand juries in the District, according to U.S. court statistics. Each grand jury may include 16 to 23 members.
Negin wrote a letter to the judiciary committees asking for a raise nationwide to equal the minimum wage — currently $12.50 an hour in the District — and sent it with the petition. He publicly released only a copy of the letter's first page, to respect the wishes of most of the grand jurors, who did not want to be identified publicly, he said.
Negin, salaried worker Darrick Williams and Wanda White, a public housing resident who said her rent rate is affected by the payments, agreed to be interviewed.
The three said in their letter that working two days a week on the grand jury for a 1½-year term hurt them in their regular workdays. Grand jurors typically meet about two days a week over 18 months, although some grand juries called for special purposes could meet less or more depending on prosecutors' needs.
Negin, 63, and Williams, 51, said they are receiving their regular salaries but have been affected in other ways. Negin said he has to work nights and weekends to make up work, and Williams, who is an administrative worker at a law firm, said that his service has damaged his chances for a raise or promotion.
White, 55, is an office building concierge whose employer does not pay jury leave. She said her service has lowered her income and has left her without a corresponding boost in her housing subsidy that she otherwise would receive.
White's housing subsidy is based on her wages, she said: The more she makes, the more she pays, and vice versa. However, the hours and days she is called to report for grand jury work vary so much that tracking how much less she is earning each month over her 18 months of service for an adjustment is complicated, particularly because it is set in advance and typically reviewed only once a year.
White said that her rent continues to be higher because it is based on her working five days a week and that she does not want to risk underreporting her unpredictable income.
"The days that I report for jury duty reduce that income, but the hours and days vary so much," she said. "So I just pay my rent according to what I would earn if I didn't have jury duty."
Federal courts pay all jurors $40 per day plus $7 for travel expenses, except for federal employees, who are paid their regular salary. After 45 days of service, the rate increases to $50. Private employers may pay workers for jury service but are not required to, and about 40 percent do not, according to the U.S. courts.
By comparison, a person paid the $12.50 an hour minimum wage in the nation's capital would earn $100 for an eight-hour day, although jurors can work shorter hours. The D.C. wage is set to increase to $15 an hour by 2020 and be tied to inflation after that.
The federal rate applies both to regular jurors — who on average serve three to six days during a two-week term on juries of six to 12 people and decide public civil or criminal trials, according to the D.C. court — and to grand jurors, who meet in secret and work with prosecutors to decide whether to indict criminal defendants.
Juror pay is set by statute and funded by Congress. In May, Judge Julia Smith Gibbons of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, based in Cincinnati, for the second straight year asked appropriators for an additional $3 million on behalf of the courts to increase the daily fee to $50 from the outset of all service. That appeal so far has been unsuccessful.
The cost of living has increased significantly since 1990, and higher pay would lead to fewer jurors seeking excuses from service, improving the efficiency of and empaneling more representative juries, advocates say.
"It is a hardship, and needs to go up $10 an hour," said David A. Sellers, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, while noting that the federal rate is higher than what most states pay.
The $50 daily rate set in 1990 had the buying power of $97 as of October of this year, according to consumer price index calculations.
Many offer $10 a day and some as little as $2.50 a day, according to the National Center for State Courts, a nonprofit clearinghouse of court information that seeks to improve judicial administration. Oklahoma in 2004 established a "lengthy trial fund" from civil suit filing fees in which courts may pay replacement wages of up to $200 per day after 10 days.
Virginia pays jurors $30 per day. The District pays $30 per day after the first day and requires employers with more than 10 workers to pay up to five days' regular salary. Maryland pays jurors $15 to $30 per day, generally, depending on the jurisdiction, and $50 per day beginning on the sixth day.
The House Judiciary Committee said Monday that it was looking into the issue raised in the letter. The Senate committee did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
According to a March survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 38 percent of workers reported that they did not receive paid jury duty leave. The top half of income earners were twice as likely to get leave as the lower half.