POLITICS
07/26/2016 03:58 pm ET Updated Jul 27, 2016

Wage Theft Discovered Inside The Senate

According to the Labor Department, low-wage workers who serve food were getting stiffed right under senators' noses.
The statue of Grief and History in front of the U.S. Capitol Dome in Washington.
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
The statue of Grief and History in front of the U.S. Capitol Dome in Washington.

If members of Congress want to learn more about wage theft, they should talk to some of the low-wage workers who serve them meals.

The Labor Department announced Tuesday that federal contractors had shorted 674 Senate cafeteria workers to the tune of $1 million. Two companies, Restaurant Associates and its subcontractor, Personnel Plus, violated the law by misclassifying workers into lower-paying positions and having them work off the clock, the agency said.

The Labor Department says it is considering whether to bar the employers from securing additional contracts going forward. David Weil, head of the agency’s Wage and Hour Division, said in a statement that low-wage restaurant workers “shouldn’t have to deal with paychecks that don’t accurately reflect their hard work and the wages to which they are legally entitled.”

In a statement sent by a spokesman, Restaurant Associates, which is owned by the food service conglomerate Compass Group, acknowledged that some employees weren’t properly classified in their positions, leading to them being paid below what the law required. The company attributed the mistakes to “administrative technicalities related to [workers’] evolving day-to-day work responsibilities.”

The company said it corrected the problem and has already compensated the workers. But according to the Labor Department, not all of the backpay has been paid yet.

Because the cafeteria work is funded with taxpayer dollars, the jobs are subject to prevailing wage laws, which guarantee minimum pay for particular positions. The laws are meant to discourage contractors from underbidding one another and bringing in cheap labor, thereby undercutting the local pay rates. In this case, the federal government determines the baseline pay for each position in the cafeteria, and contractors must abide by it.

The investigation from the Labor Department appears to have come on the heels of a complaint filed by Good Jobs Nation, a union-backed worker group that’s organizing employees inside the Capitol and other federal buildings. The group has led worker strikes and protests with the support of some liberal Congress members, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.).

Joseph Geevarghese, the group’s director, said many workers who were hired as cooks or chefs were downgraded to food server, a classification that comes with a lower pay rate.

“This is symptomatic of a larger problem,” Geevarghese said. “If federal contractors believe they can get away with breaking federal laws right under the nose of lawmakers, imagine what they’re doing all across the U.S., where workers don’t have access to power and access to the media. I would argue that what we’re seeing in Washington is just the tip of the iceberg.”

In response to the campaign by workers, the White House has taken a few steps to improve the lot of federal contractors. President Barack Obama signed an executive order instituting a minimum wage of $10.10 on federal properties, and another executive order that would bar companies with a history of wage theft from getting federal contracts.

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