The Washington Post

D.C.’s ‘living wage’ movement gains traction

Low-wage workers protested outside Smithsonian museums Thursday, continuing a string of recent demonstrations to promote better pay for some contract employees at federal buildings.

Good Jobs Nation, a group advocating on behalf of private-sector workers employed under federal concession agreements, organized the protests.

The actions came a day after the D.C. Council approved a bill requiring large retailers to pay their employees 50 percent more than the District’s $8.25-an-hour minimum wage.

Good Jobs Nation asserts that the federal government should not tolerate agreements with contractors who pay low wages.

About 50 private-sector employees scheduled to work at federal buildings Thursday were among about 100 people who participated in the rallies, Good Jobs Nation said. It described the demonstrations as a strike.

In a statement released about the protests, the group quoted workers such as Ana Hernandez, a McDonald’s employee at Air and Space who spoke about living on an annual income of $11,000.

“You have to make hard choices, like putting food on the table or paying the bills, having electricity or buying clothes for your children,” Hernandez said in the statement. “We deserve a living wage for the hard work we do.”

Linda St. Thomas, a Smithsonian spokeswoman, said, “We understand their concerns, but we don’t control these companies. We’re not in charge of the wages and benefits of their employers, but we obviously make sure every business operates in line with local and federal laws.”

St. Thomas also questioned the characterization of the Good Jobs protests as a strike, noting that the organization paid the protesting workers $125 apiece.

Zoe Bridges-Curry, a Good Jobs spokeswoman, said the payments are standard in labor disputes and said workers delivered strike notices to employers.

“It’s common practice for strikers to receive remuneration for the time they are on strike so they can cover their basic needs,” she said. Supporters from the community did not receive compensation, she said.

St. Thomas said the museum restaurants were able to operate all day.

Thursday’s protests included a bit of street theater near the National Air and Space Museum, where actors portraying Ronald McDonald and Uncle Sam climbed into bed together. Ronald also accepted a $1 million check for executive compensation while handing a check to an employee for $8.25 an hour.

Good Jobs has demanded Presi­dent Obama take action to guarantee a “living wage” for workers at federal facilities.

The group also posted a YouTube video of a small contingent visiting the home of Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough and requesting his support.

“You guys really have to talk to your employers . . . instead of me, because we contract with those companies,” said Clough, who then wished the contingent well.

Good Jobs has held four demonstrations since May, and this month it filed a complaint with the Labor Department alleging wage theft by food vendors licensed to do business in the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. The group claims eight franchises operating at the federal facility have paid employees less than the federal minimum wage and cheated them out of overtime pay.

The complaint does not allege wrongdoing by the Smithsonian, which contracts with three foodservice companies: McDonald’s, Restaurant Associates and Sodexo.

The Labor Department is investigating the Reagan Building’s management firm. The General Services Administration has promised to take action if the company violated federal guidelines.

Good Jobs has said it represents “an invisible army of 2 million workers” who have jobs such as greeting visitors, selling memorabilia, driving trucks and making military uniforms.

The employees who participated in Thursday’s protests work for vendors licensed at the Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of American History.

McDonald’s said in a statement Thursday that its franchises pay employees competitive wages, offer them “a range of benefits to meet their individual needs” and provide training opportunities to help them advance.

“Both our company and franchised-owned restaurants work hard every day to treat McDonald’s employees with dignity and respect,” the statement said.

Ed Sirhal, president of Restaurant Associates, said that his company starts its employees with a wage 75 cents above the federal minimum wage and that 42 percent of its workforce earns more than $11.00 an hour.

“Restaurant Associates is actively engaged every day with our associates in an effort to learn from them any challenges they face in their jobs and to identify how we can best address those,” Sirhal said.

Sodexo, rated by the online magazine DiversityInc as the most diverse company in the nation, said it did not have a comment.

Some economists are skeptical about the benefits of increasing the minimum wage, saying an increase could cause some companies to reduce hiring or hours.

“It’s kind of a wash or modestly beneficial,” said David Neumark, an economics professor at the University of California at Irvine who specializes in labor issues. “You end up helping some low-income people and hurting others.”

Neumark said tax credits are a more effective mechanism for bringing people out of poverty.

Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.

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