Byline: Charles Babington and Laurie Kellman
WASHINGTON -- Income inequality is more than a political sound bite to workers in the Capitol. It's their life.
Many of the Capitol's food servers, who make the meals, bus the tables and run the cash registers in the restaurants and carryouts that serve lawmakers, earn less than $11 an hour. Some make nothing at all when Congress is in recess.
Members of the House and Senate collect their $174,000 annual salaries whether Congress is making laws, taking a break or causing a partial government shutdown.
''This is the most important building in the world,'' said Sontia Bailey, who works the cash register and stocks the shelves at the ''Refectory'' takeout on the Capitol's Senate side. ''You'd think our wages would be better.''
Bailey, 34, makes $10.33 an hour, a hair above the $10.10 hourly minimum for federal contractors. She had to move from her apartment to a rented room when the 2013 temporary government shutdown interrupted her income, she said.
KFC pays her better. Bailey works weekends and two evenings a week there, making $12 an hour.
In the Capitol food service world, she said, ''everybody has second jobs.''
Down an ornate hallway is 21-year-old Abraham Tesfahun. He serves lunch in the Senate members' dining room and handles the afternoon cash register in the busy Senate takeout, one floor below. Tesfahun said his hourly pay is $10.30. But he receives an additional $3 an hour in cash, which otherwise would go toward health insurance. He is covered by his mother's insurance policy under President Barack Obama's health care law.
That doesn't mean Tesfahun, who emigrated from Ethiopia as a teenager, is tight with his mom.
''She kind of kicked me out of the house,'' he said sheepishly, when he quit community college after one year to work seven days a week. Now, he said, he rents a basement room and works full time in the Capitol. On Saturdays and Sundays, he works at a Dunkin' Donuts, for $8 an hour. That's above the federal minimum wage of $7.25, although some states have higher minimums.
''People are much nicer'' in the Capitol, Tesfahun said. But he said he generally has no work or pay when Congress is out of session, and he sometimes collects unemployment benefits. The Senate is scheduled to be in recess 13 weeks this year.
Both Bailey and Tesfahun said they once received a pay raise of 3 cents an hour.
In Congress and the 2016 presidential race, candidates in both parties promise to help U.S. workers narrow...