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PIKETTY, STIGLITZ AND WASHINGTON, D.C. (PART II)

May 12, 2015

PIKETTY, STIGLITZ AND WASHINGTON, D.C. (PART II)

(Research for this Part II is courtesy of an AP report; the commentary is mine.) It is a crime either state and/ or federal to take the lives of other human beings, but it is not a crime to take their hopes and dreams and aspirations and well being via wage inequality, and that is precisely what our federal legislators are doing with their despicable treatment of the food servers who make the meals, bus the tables and run the cash registers in the restaurants and carryout places that serve these lawmakers day and night. Many are paid less than $11 an hour and some are paid nothing when Congress is in recess (which is often – the Senate is already scheduled to take 13 weeks in recess this year). Paying the rent and buying food do not take 13 weeks off or time off during shutdowns and sequesters, and living costs in Washington are sky-high, rivaling those of San Francisco and New York. How are the legislators’ food servers to survive? Indeed, how many paycheck-to-paycheck employees in Omaha or Amarillo could survive with 13 plus weeks in addition to isolated other shutdowns of no paychecks?

One such employee, who works a cash register and stocks the shelves at a Senate takeout facility makes more money per hour in her part-time job at Kentucky Fried Chicken (by $1.67) working two evenings per week and weekends than she does serving senators.  She had to move from a rented apartment to a rented room during the Republican-sponsored government shutdown. She noted that in the Capitol food service world, “everybody has second jobs.”

Another capitol food service employee stated that he rents a basement room and works full time in the Capitol, and that on Saturdays and Sundays he works at a Dunkin’ Donuts for $8 an hour (which is above the absurdly low federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour). He went on to say that he generally has no work or pay when Congress is not in session, and that he sometimes collects unemployment benefits. I here note that members of the Congress are collecting their $174,000 annual salaries whether Congress is making laws, taking a break or causing government shutdowns, and I have yet to hear of a private enterprise employer who offered a minimum of 13 weeks of vacation in its employment brochure. What a deal, especially when even “in session” they work a four-day week with late daily starts and with three day weekends! I have heard that often the first motion after being called to order in late morning is a motion to adjourn for lunch, reconvening at 2:00 P.M. Some lunch hour that is! Someone should compute the average hours worked “in session” (but keep the resulting hourly rate of pay to our legislators  in a Swiss bank vault for fear of starting a revolution).

Any such study would be met with howls from the legislators that time on the floor does not reflect their time tending to constituent care which, of course, has little to do with running the government and a lot to do with such legislators’ reelection. Much if not most of their time (if on unimportant committees) is spent in calling prospects for campaign contributions, which again has little to do with government and a lot to do with such legislators’ reelection.

How do these legislators get away with hiring food service employees at such starvation wages, especially given the stratospheric costs of living in and around the nation’s capital? Here’s how. Both the House and Senate have privatized such services to Restaurant Associates, a major New York-based contractor that handles food services for both houses. The politicians  have thus added a layer of plausible deniability to complaint by referring all such complaints to their contractor, much as George Bush brought Blackwater in to his wars to do jobs service people could not do and at prices, both in human and terms of costs, that stagger the imagination.

After the Washington Post, CNN and others profiled Charles Gladden, a Senate food worker who is homeless, several Democratic senators urged the Republican leadership to press their contractor, Restaurant Associates, to increase workers’ pay. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., Rules Committee chair, said: “Their concerns will be kept in mind as the contract comes up for renegotiation this year.” The House’s contract expires in August; requests for bids went out last fall. Congressional aides say that neither the House nor Senate contract provides for hourly rates for workers. Recently Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz called on the House to choose contractors who pay workers a “living wage” according to local economic standards. It failed in the Republican House. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., said in the weakest rejoinder I have heard recently that “It’s really not within the scope of this committee nor subcommittee to micromanage all contracts” (as though a bid request subject to a minimum level of wages in one contract having to do with the House’s own food servers amounts to micromanaging). Food service to the legislators themselves should never have been privatized. Such services and employees providing such services should be under direct public control and assigned to a committee to “micromanage.” For a change, let the legislators earn their bread, so to speak.

Senator Paul responds to the food worker dustup by noting that income inequality “is worse in towns run by Democrat mayors,” as though mayors have little more to do than cut ribbons, make speeches, kiss babies and sweet talk corporations into coming to town and, in any event, it is clearly the Washington establishment that greases the skids for continuing wage inequality, an establishment in which he numbers. Pointing to others for your own shortcomings is an old trick used by veteran politicians, and Paul (though a newcomer) is good at it.

Jeb Bush observes in connection with wage inequality that if the economy is not growing, “you’re not going to deal with income inequality.” This is shallow and untrue. We have had a doubling and redoubling growth of our economy (with occasional downturns and Bush’s Great Recession) since 1974, and median family wages after indexing for inflation during these decades are still stagnating and even falling. Nice try, Jeb. Check economic history next time.

These food workers are entitled to the accountability that comes generally with public control, which should include minimum wage standards for all employees under government contract, and it is no big deal to add such standards into requests for bids, so let’s do it.    GERALD   E

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