Embarrassment in the US Senate

I was writing the second installment of “The Differences Between Conservatives and Liberals, Part II: The Economic Environment” when I was pulled off topic this morning by a brief segment which aired on CNN. It was about a 63 year old man, Charles Gladden, who works in the cafeteria of the US Senate. He described his work as “washing dishes, sweeping and cleaning toilets”. Not an unusual story, just a guy working a menial, low wage, “somebody’s gotta do it” job that just happens to be doing the dirty work for US Senators. What made far from usual was when it came out Wednesday that the man is homeless.

That’s right; someone working in Capital Building in Washington D.C., cleaning up after US Senators, is homeless and living on the streets. It all came out when Charles joined 39 other workers who do kitchen and janitorial work for the US Senate walked off their jobs Wednesday morning to join a rally calling for our government to force federal contractors to pay their workers more.

Embarrassed Senators are said be working behind the scenes to put pressure on their government contractors to pay their employees more. However, when the Senators had an opportunity to approve legislation to increase the minimum wage last year, they couldn’t get it done. The final vote total was 54-42; the measure failed to get the 60 votes necessary to overcome a Republican filibuster. As promised, Democrats recently reintroduced minimum wage legislation, but with the Senate now controlled by the Republicans, that bill is probably going nowhere.

Meanwhile Charles, along with other homeless men, sleeps on the floor of a Metro subway stop using a few blankets to keep warm. He and his companions need to be gone by dawn when rush the morning commute starts. After putting on his only pair of shoes, Charles puts all of he rest of his worldly possessions in a single bag, takes what he calls a “bird bath” in the sink of the Metro stop’s restroom and then walks to work.

Charles, who’s job pays him $360 dollars a week, was asked why he was homeless while his coworkers receive similar pay and are not. He responded that his diabetes is getting worst – he has already had three of his toes amputated – and he sometimes has to take unpaid sick days to have is illness treated. In addition he says he supplements the income of his children and grandchildren who aren’t doing well financially.

Charles’s story is a national disgrace. He’s not lazy – he works a hard physical job every hour he can. He’s not mentally ill – he is a reasonably intelligent, articulate gentleman. He’s not an alcohol or substance abuser and he isn’t looking or a handout – he just wants to be paid a wage he can live on.

The real national embarrassment is our current federal minimum wage law. The current federal minimum wage law was enacted eight years ago in 2007 and raised the minimum wage in three steps to $7.25 an hour in 2009. While Republicans would have you believe that the vast majority of workers earning the minimum wage are teenagers working in fast food joints, the truth is that 60% of all minimum wage earners work for large companies like the contracting firm which employs Charles.

How can we expect people to live on $7.25 an hour? That calculates out to $290 a week (less than Charles makes) or $1,270 in the average month or $15,312 a year. According to the Department of Labor, the average American work makes $24.83 an hour or $52,441 a year – almost 3.4 times the federal minimum wage.

While a number of states have enacted their own minimum wage laws with minimums above $7.25, most of those are in the $8.00 range with a handful pegged in the $9.00 range. Still, nationally 1.6 million workers earned the prevailing federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour while about 2.0 million more had wages below the federal minimum. Together, there are 3.6 million workers with wages at or below the federal minimum making up 4.7 percent of all hourly workers.

As a nation we need to do better. If you are not inclined to support increasing the federal minimum wage, ask yourself this question: How well would you do if you had to support yourself on $290 a week?

Cajun   4/24/2015