From Think Progress:
by Alan Pyke
Two companies that run food service at the U.S. Capitol will pay a million dollars in back wages to almost 700 workers who they cheated out of their pay, the Department of Labor announced Tuesday.
The men and women who serve Congress its food clawed their way into Washington’s conscience over the past couple of years with a series of strikes and walkouts as part of a campaign for higher wages and union rights. The strikes at the Capitol and in other federal buildings in the Washington, D.C. area helped persuade President Obama to issue three executive orders mandating higher wages and stronger workplace protections for workers hired by federal contractors.
A handful of workers became the face of the union-backed Good Jobs Nation campaign with wrenching stories about earning too little to survive in D.C. or to keep their families together. But the penalties handed down Tuesday suggest the federal contractor taxpayers pay to staff cafeterias on Capitol Hill were not just paying too little to keep up with the skyrocketing cost of living. They were outright breaking the law.
The companies routinely failed to pay overtime and misclassified many workers so that they could pay them lower hourly wages than their actual work duties should have earned according to the federal contract for cafeteria service, the DOL said in a statement. Exact details of the back-pay deal were unavailable because the agency’s investigation is ongoing, a department spokesperson told ThinkProgress, but the violations uncovered date as far back as 2010.
A total of 674 workers will get checks totaling $1,008,302 from longtime Capitol Hill food service provider Restaurant Associates, which is part of a multi-billion-dollar British conglomerate, and its subcontractor Personnel Plus. Since it only takes around 200 workers to staff the Senate and Capitol Visitors Center cafeterias at any given time, Good Jobs Nation director Joseph Geevarghese said in an interview, the compensation likely includes temps who long since moved on to new work.
“If federal laws are being broken by federal contractors right under the noses of federal lawmakers in Washington, D.C., imagine what’s happening all around the U.S. to workers who are far from the corridors of power,” Geevarghese said.
Restaurant Associates is a particularly flagrant example of the lengths to which contractor firms will go to maximize profit and squeeze their workers. The company's contract to staff these cafeterias was up near the end of 2015, just as public pressure from the strikes was nearing its peak.
As part of the renegotiated contract, the company promised large raises to frontline workers — raises it skipped out on by reclassifying workers into lower-paying categories, as the Washington Post's Catherine Rampell reported in the spring. The company gave those workers their proper titles and wages back after the Post exposed the dodge. It blames Tuesday's revelations on "administrative technicalities," according to the Huffington Post.
Yet as recently as this spring, some conservative lawmakers have been trying to make it easier for contractors to cheat their employees. Republicans snuck a rider into the Pentagon funding bill in May that would exempt all Department of Defense contractors from Obama executive orders that make it harder for companies to get taxpayer money if they break labor law.
“They seem to believe that federal contractors will self-police and will automatically follow the letter of the law,” said Geevarghese. “This should be a wakeup call to the GOP that if federal contractors that serve you feel free to steal wages and break labor laws, it’s probably happening on every military base around the United States of America.”
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