POLITICS

Workers At Education Department, National Zoo Claim They Were Shorted On Pay

04/09/2015 02:03 pm ET | Updated Apr 09, 2015
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WASHINGTON -- A group of D.C. workers employed under federal contracts filed a complaint with the Labor Department on Wednesday alleging that they've been illegally underpaid for years.

Most of the 15 workers named in the letter to officials earn less than $10 per hour and work at the National Zoo and the Department of Education. The group filing the complaint, Good Jobs Nation, which is backed by labor unions, claims that the workers' pay rates fail to meet the prevailing wage requirements under federal law.

One of the workers, Sonia Chavez, said in a call with reporters Thursday that she cleans the office of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and earns $9.50 per hour. Good Jobs Nation says that Chavez should be earning close to $15 in pay and benefits under the Service Contract Act, a 1965 law that requires federal contractors to provide minimum pay-and-benefit packages according to occupation and region.

"I'm not proud to say it, but we rely on public aid and charity to feed and clothe our children," Chavez said in Spanish through an interpreter. She added that her husband does janitorial work in the same building.

The General Services Administration issues the janitorial contract. A spokeswoman for the Education Department said that GSA is looking into the workers' claims.

“The well-being of every person who works in our buildings, whether or not they are employed directly by the U.S. Department of Education, is important to us," she said in an email.

The group's decision to name Duncan is in line with its strategy over the past two years. Good Jobs Nation has been trying to pressure the White House to use executive orders to raise wages and benefits for jobs funded by taxpayer dollars. As part of its plan, the group has spearheaded a series of one-day strikes by low-wage contract workers -- most of whom work in food prep and janitorial services -- in the nation's capital.

The organization has already notched some victories on this front. The president has issued executive orders to set a minimum wage of $10.10 for workers employed under new federal contracts and to effectively bar companies that have a documented history of wage theft from receiving new federal contracts.

Now, the group is asking the Obama administration -- or the next occupant of the White House -- to go even further by giving contract preference to firms that pay at least $15 per hour in wages and benefits. They've dubbed it a "good jobs" executive order.

Good Jobs Nation is a creation of the Change to Win union federation, which includes the Service Employees International Union, the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. SEIU has been the lead organizer and funder of the fast food worker strikes that have periodically hit U.S. cities over the past two years.

"The truth is these workers have always been striking to win more than just the bare minimum," Joseph Geevarghese, deputy director of Change to Win, said of the contract employees. "These workers want this president or the next one to use his or her executive powers to turn minimum-wage jobs into good middle-class jobs."

The Service Contract Act is similar to other federal and local prevailing wage laws. Such laws require that the wages paid to workers in government-funded projects or services meet a certain minimum rate for the job and the region. The basic idea is to prevent firms from undercutting one another on bids, leading to lower-than-normal wages for the area.

The Service Contract Act only applies to certain workers employed under certain government contracts, and it would be up to the Labor Department to investigate whether the workers in the complaint made Wednesday were actually owed prevailing wages.

One of the workers, Adom Kezie, said he's paid $9.50 per hour after six years as a groundskeeper at the National Zoo, though he believes he should be getting $13.70 per hour plus more in benefits. He said he believes he's been misclassified as a concessions worker so that the prevailing wage law wouldn't apply to him.

"I struggle to pay my bills every month on my salary," Kezie said.

Kezie is employed not by the National Zoo but by its nonprofit arm, Friends of the National Zoo. Annalisa Meyer, a zoo spokeswoman, said the zoo does not believe its contract with Friends of the National Zoo would be covered by the Service Contract Act.

"FONZ pays at least the minimum wage as required by the District of Columbia," she said.

Amanda Terkel contributed reporting.

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