Protest Raises Questions About Contract Workers of Legislative Branch

Norton and Ellison rally with federal contractors who work at Union Station, the National Zoo and other D.C. sites. (Hannah Hess/CQ Roll Call)
Norton and Ellison rally with federal contractors who work at Union Station, the National Zoo and other D.C. sites. (Hannah Hess/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 29, 2014 at 2:34pm

Labor issues came to Capitol Hill Tuesday, as federal contractors protested wages at Union Station and members of Congress used the opportunity to discuss workers’ rights among contractors and employees in the legislative branch.  

About 100 federal contractors who work minimum wage jobs at Union Station, Ronald Reagan National Airport, the National Zoo and the Pentagon marched through Columbus Circle on Tuesday morning waving picket signs and flags.  

Halting the flow of taxis and tour buses at Union Station, they protested the White House’s executive order to increase hourly pay on new government contracts to $10.10 as “not enough” and demanded the right to unionize.  

“These courageous workers have gone on strike nine times,” said Rev. Michael Livingston, national policy director and head of the Washington, D.C., office for Interfaith Worker Justice. The people waving white and blue flags behind his lectern were predominantly women, many dressed like Rosie the Riveter in red bandanas and starched blue shirts and holding the hands of toddlers who marched alongside their working moms. “Workers need more than a minimum wage executive order,” Livingston yelled into a bullhorn. “Workers need a ‘good jobs’ executive order,” he said, referring to a proposal being pushed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus that would expand workers’ legal protections, identify and track violations and favor employers that offer living wages, full benefits and collective bargaining.  

But the president’s orders only apply to companies that contract with the executive branch. The contract employees of the legislative branch — at least 2,500 workers performing a broad range of jobs around Capitol Hill, ranging from technology support and construction, to security, food and janitorial services — are not necessarily affected. The firing of several contract employees working concessions for House Chief Administrative Officer Ed Cassidy has raised questions about employment policies for this small pool of workers.  

Minnesota Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, co-chairman of the CPC, told CQ Roll Call there “ought to be” the same protections for the contract workforce of the legislative branch. “I’ve had some dialogue, but at this point it’s a matter of just doing what we’re doing right now.”  

During the protest, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., fanned an eight-page House bill in front of the crowd. It would establish a preferential point system for executive branch contractors and she is touting it as a way to reward employers who believe in “better wages and stronger rights.”  

More contractor-related legislation is coming Wednesday, when Ellison and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., plan to announce legislation that would make union organizing a civil right. Democrats say they’ve been talking to low-wage workers on Capitol Hill, but they seem reluctant to join the protests taking place just blocks from their workplace.  

“We had some conversations, but to tell you the truth, some of those people are a little bit nervous because [of the] Republican majority,” Ellison said. “I talked to some people in the cafeteria and said, ‘Well, we’re willing to get out there with you, if you’re willing to get out there,’ but a lot of them were like, ‘We’re thinking about it.'”  

Norton intervened on behalf of D.C. residents who were fired from contract positions with the CAO in a July 10 letter to Cassidy. She asked him to turn over a written copy of the agency’s policy requiring contract and concession workers to obtain congressional identification badges. Several D.C. residents who worked for Capitol Host were not able to obtain ID badges because of their prior offenses and were therefore fired, according to Norton.  

“We don’t object to the background checks, but the federal government does not have a blanket policy” on criminal background checks, Norton told CQ Roll Call. The Office of Personnel Management, for example, does not use general prohibitions against employing people with criminal records in the federal government, though some ex-offenders are prohibited from working in certain positions if they have specific convictions.  

“I couldn’t help but think that some of these employees might have marijuana offenses of the kind that … the District is trying to keep from ruining somebody’s lives, so I would very much object to a blanket policy in the House,” she said. About two weeks ago, D.C. began enforcing a new law that decriminalizes possession of small amounts of marijuana.  

Congressional staff and interns for every member of Congress receive identification badges without background checks. In both the House and the Senate, member offices and committees are their own employing authority.  

Each congressman or committee chairman sets his or her own pre-hiring requirements and the terms and conditions of employment, according to spokespeople for the House Administration Committee and the Senate sergeant-at-arms. Once they have vetted prospective staff members to their satisfaction, they request a congressional identification badge be issued to the individual by the Senate or House ID office. The same rules apply for credentialed members of the media galleries who are issued press badges.  

In the Senate, both permanent staff of the Senate sergeant-at-arms and the agency’s 200 to 300 contractors must satisfactorily complete a background check as a condition of their employment or contractor status, according to a spokesperson for the SAA.  

Cassidy’s office has not made public its employment policies on contract workers. Norton requested the info be provided within 30 days of her letter. She says hiring decisions should be made on a “case-by-case basis.”