Responding to the protests, eight Democratic senators, led by Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), plus Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), on Monday called for better wages and benefits for the Senate's own contract workers, some of whom make less than $10 an hour. They wrote to Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, which oversees Capitol campus matters, telling him a new $10.10 wage baseline supported by President Obama is only a start.
"With the cost of living in the Washington DC metropolitan area among the highest in the United States, the Rules Committee should build on this minimum wage by requiring contractors doing business with the U.S. Senate to be model employers who treat their employees fairly," Durbin wrote. "People who work full time should be able to support themselves and their families."
At issue are not the wages paid by the Senate to its own employees, but the wages paid by the private contractors it hires to, among other things, operate and maintain the dining facilities on the Senate side of the Capitol campus.
"Contractors should not be allowed to keep food and restaurant services prices low for Senators, Senate staff and visitors to the Senate while failing to pay their workers a living wage," the letter continues. "Nor should American taxpayers subsidize these contractors by allowing them to pay low wages that must be augmented by taxpayer-funded benefits."
But there is political irony in the nine Democrats' request: Less than seven years ago, it was, yes, Democrats who led a push to privatize the Senate's food services, amid huge operating deficits and frequent complaints about substandard fare and service.
In 2008, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), then the Rules Committee chairman, described the food service operation as "cratering" and said she and her colleagues had no choice but to pursue privatization -- thus paving the way for lower wages and benefits for Capitol Hill workers.
"Candidly, I don't think the taxpayers should be subsidizing something that doesn't need to be," she said. "There are parts of government that can be run like a business and should be run like businesses."
At the time, the average wage for the roughly 100 Senate food service employees was about $37,000 annually. Under the privatization deal, current Senate employees who went to work for the contractor, Restaurant Associates, would keep their current wages as well as their federal health and pension benefits. New hires would not be so lucky: Gladden, for instance, takes home roughly half of that $37,000 average in his current job.
Some Democrats protested the privatization move back in 2008, but faced with mounting deficits and the prospect of radically higher food and drink prices, the opposition faded. The legislation approving the change passed on a late-night voice vote.
Among the letter's nine signers, five of them -- Durbin, Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Robert Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) -- were senators in 2008 when the measure authorizing the privatization passed. Any of them could have objected, forcing at least a roll-call vote, if not tougher guarantees for workers.
The senators called on Blunt to require Restaurant Associates to provide workers "a living wage, fair healthcare and other benefits."
In a statement Monday, Blunt said he and his colleagues "appreciate the work of those who serve the Senate community and agree they should receive a fair wage."
"Currently, under a contract that has been in place for several years, the average Senate restaurant worker receives an hourly wage well above the [$10.10] minimum referenced in my colleagues’ letter," he said. "Nevertheless, their concerns will be kept in mind as the contract comes up for renegotiation."
Correction: This post originally referred to nine Democratic signers of the letter. Eight are Democrats. The ninth, Sanders, is an independent. Also, Casey is a Democrat, not a Republican.