For the past eight years, from his custodial post in the cafeteria of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, Charles Gladden has greeted the movers and shakers of Washington, D.C.
Nearly none of them knew that, when his shift was over, Mr. Gladden, who has been homeless for five years, would spend his nights sleeping on the street near the McPherson Square Metro Station.
“Our lawmakers, they don’t even realize what’s going on right beneath their feet,” Gladden told the Washington Post's opinion columnist Catherine Rampell. “They don’t have a clue.”
Gladden makes $11 an hour and brings home about $360 a week. He uses the majority of those funds, he says, to provide for his three daughters and grandchildren who struggle to find homes and jobs. He told Ms. Rampell that his family needs the money more than he does.
Washington, D.C. is one of the most expensive cities in the country to live, with households spending on average $17,603 annually on shelter, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
To call attention to the difficulties facing low-income workers, Gladden and his fellow janitor and food service contract workers at the Senate, walked off the job to join protesters Wednesday who were calling for an executive order requiring that all federal contractors guarantee a wage of $15 an hour, provide benefits with paid leave, and allow collective bargaining.
However, such an executive order would not apply to Gladden or the other 2,500 or so contracted Capitol employees.
“They are participating, I would guess, as a show of solidarity," Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent whose offices are in the Dirksen building, told CQ Roll Call before the walkout. "And the bottom line is the federal government, anybody, any business that has a contract with the federal government, should pay a living wage.”
The "Fight for 15," as the campaign for a $15-per-hour minimum wage is called, has mobilized demonstrations across the country. Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, widely considered to be a possible liberal rival to Hillary Clinton for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, has endorsed the idea.
In Washington, on April 15, a number of social justice groups launched a ballot initiative to raise Washington, D.C.'s minimum wage to $15 an hour.
“This fight is not about what Wal-Mart would say it’s about, it’s not about profit shares, it’s not about stock prices and it’s not about bottom lines,” Delvone Michael, director of D.C. Working Families, told the Washington Post. “This fight is about real people. This fight is about who we are as a city and what we become as a nation.”
Opponents of raising the minimum wage to $15 claim that it would have adverse effects on states with lower costs of living. Slate commentator Reihan Salam argued, as paychecks hypothetically increase, the cost of goods would outpace the workers' savings. An expensive state like Massachusetts, Mr. Salam argues, is far better equipped to handle a minimum wage hike versus a state like Mississippi, where 28 percent of workers currently make below $15 an hour.
Even in this context, however Washington's cost of living is much closer to that of Boston than to that of Jackson, Miss., suggesting that that the nation's capital would have an easier time than many parts of the country in absorbing a minimum wage increase.
“This whole economic recovery has completely left wages behind. We’re talking about hiking the minimum wage. This isn’t a living wage,” David Bronner head of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap and supporter of the D.C. ballot initiative, told the Post. “Let’s just say that when Wal-Mart has a holiday food drive for their own employees, come on.”