Low-wage workers picket outside US federal buildings

WASHINGTON - Federal contract employees at some of the United States' best-known landmarks walked off their jobs on Tuesday during a day of protests over low wages and lack of benefits.

The day-long strike was organised by a group called Good Jobs Nation on behalf of the workers who serve the food and run the cash registers at museums and offices in the heart of the federal city. Some strikers said that they were being paid less than the federal minimum wage of US$7.25 (S$9.10) and others, more surprising, said they were working in a government building despite being in the country illegally.

Throughout the day, protesters blocked traffic at Pennsylvania Avenue, prayed for inspiration by a civil rights exhibit at the National Museum of American History, papered the Air and Space Museum with leaflets shaped like tiny airplanes and rallied at noontime at Union Station. There were two arrests at the Air and Space Museum, organisers said.

"It's important for me and all my co-workers. We're all going through the same thing. Low wages, no money," said Mr Antonio Venegas, 24, a US$9-an-hour employee at the pita shop in the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington.

Workers had banded together to advocate for higher wages and better benefits from the Obama administration, their cause bolstered by a recent study by the public policy group Demos that found that federal contracts and concessions fund nearly 2 million private-sector jobs paying US$12 an hour or less. That makes the federal government the biggest creator of low-wage jobs in the country - more than Wal-Mart and McDonald's combined, the study found.

Nearly 100,000 of those jobs are in the Washington area, according to Good Jobs Nation, mostly in stores and restaurants that operate concessions in the food courts of federally owned buildings. At Union Station, for example, that would include Burger King, Einstein Bros. Bagels and Sbarro, the group said. At the Reagan building, it's Au Bon Pain.

Good Jobs Nation said its members also include workers who sew military uniforms and drive trucks owned by shipping companies that transport Defense Department supplies from factories to ports around the country.

Members of Congress's progressive caucus - who held a Tuesday hearing dubbed "Low-Wage Work on the Federal Dime: How Our Tax Dollars Drive Inequality" - noted the irony of such low-level contract workers eking out subsistence wages as the CEOs of contracting firms earn millions in salaries and bonuses.

"If you worked in these same federal buildings in my district, if you worked directly for those agencies, you would be paid a decent wage," said D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat, in the hearing.

"But the federal government has outsourced your labor and is trying to distance itself from the responsibility of your low wages."

But some economists argue that forcing contractors to pay higher wages could ultimately be a greater burden to taxpayers. A spokesman for the General Services Administration said the individual restaurants in the Reagan Building, for example, make their own salary and hiring decisions, although they are expected to comply with applicable federal laws.

Mr Jonathan Ross, a custodian at the National Museum of American History, said he has been at his job four years but can't afford health care and and only makes US$9.71 an hour, despite three raises of around 10 cents each.

"It's what we do that makes the place shine," said Mr Ross. "And yet, I can't afford rent. I just had to move in with my mom. If this is what I need to do to be seen and heard, this is what I am going to do."

Mr Ross was striking but still lingering at his workplace, pausing with other workers for a moment of reflection and prayer before the museum's display honoring the African American college students who helped integrate lunch counters at Woolworth's in 1960.

He was running into his grumpy bosses around every corner, but he just ignored them.

"I love it!" Mr Ross said. "If we can't fight for something we'll fall for anything. That's real."

Ms Maria Martell, 55, of Arlington, Va., said she did not show up for her 5.30am shift at Au Bon Pain on Tuesday, even though it meant she might lose her job. She said that with her US$10-an-hour job she has trouble paying her rent and for her medications.

"We really need help. I can't believe this is happening in a federal building," Ms Martell said.