Heard on the Hill

Pay Woes Persist for Some Senate Food Workers

Vendor owed $1 million following labor law violations

Senate food workers have gone on strike several times. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Some food workers claim they are not getting the money they're due after a Labor Department investigation found the company that operates cafeterias for the Senate owed more than $1 million in back pay.

The Labor Department announced in July that for the past six years, Restaurant Associates had failed to pay proper wages. Nearly 700 workers were affected.

Officials with the labor group Good Jobs Nation, which has been organizing the food workers, said that several workers have reported that they've received little or no back pay compared to some of their colleagues.

In a letter, the group has asked the Labor Department to interview all of Restaurant Associates' current workers in Senate cafeterias. It said the Labor Department findings may not be completely accurate, as department investigators did not speak with every worker.

Senate Food Service Vendor Ordered to Pay $1 Million in Back Wages ]

The department found Restaurant Associates violated the Service Contract Act by misclassifying employees so they would be paid lower wages. It also found that the company failed to pay proper health and welfare benefits, and violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by failing to pay workers overtime. Findings of the investigation are not publicly available because the inquiry is still not officially closed.

Labor Department spokeswoman Lenore Uddyback-Fortson said violations occurred between February 2010 and February 2016. She said the department received the Good Jobs Nation letter and would formally respond to the group's concerns.

Sam Souccar, a spokesman for Restaurant Associates, said the Labor Department determined the back pay amounts. Souccar said the payments were based on factors including "current and historical job duties, current and historical wage compensation, length of service on the contract, and current and historical [Service Contract Act] job classifications and benefits."

Senators Want Labor Department Audit of Food Vendor ]

Good Jobs Nation's policy and legal director George Faraday wrote in the Sept. 14 letter to the Labor Department that the group knows of at least 19 workers who were not interviewed by investigators — and workers have reported a wide range of payments.

Faraday wrote that while some employees had received back pay payments of "over $20,000, others received only insignificant payments or nothing at all, even though they had longer periods of service and experienced similar working conditions." 

"A number of employees also told us that they were still being incorrectly classified, and/or were regularly required to perform duties outside their purported [Service Contract Act] classification," he wrote.

In an interview, Faraday raised concerns that roughly half of those workers who were not interviewed by investigators had also participated in recent strikes. Faraday said he doubted the Labor Department would intentionally exclude those workers, but suggested management could have delayed interviews for certain workers. 

Senate Food Workers Allege 'Raise Theft' ]

Faraday cited advice from the law firm Epstein Becker Green to employers that a Labor investigator "may not interfere with normal business operations." Faraday said that hypothetically a manager could decline an interview if the worker is in the middle of a task.

Uddyback-Fortson said department investigators interview a "representative group of workers" — not every employee — to determine whether there has been an SCA violation.

"Once the violation has been established, the agency calculates back wages owed to all similarly situated employees," Uddyback-Fortson wrote in an email. "A worker who feels that the back wages amount they received is not reflective of what they should be paid may provide additional evidence to the department."   

In the meantime, some workers are still in the dark about the back pay they received.

Alba Morales works as a cashier in the Dirksen Senate Office Building cafeteria. About a month ago, her manager called her into his office, and handed her a check for $238.

NLRB Finds Retaliation After Capitol Food Worker Strike ]

Morales was never interviewed by Labor investigators. She questioned whether the payment was correct, noting that she has been working for Restaurant Associates in the Senate for eight years. Her manager told her that the company gave investigators her employment information.

Morales pointed out that the information may not be correct, but her manager said he could not do anything about the payment since the payment decisions had been made.

“I’m still confused,” Morales said.

Morales has participated in several strikes where Senate workers have called for higher wages and union representation. Morales and Faraday both called for workers to be included in future discussions and allowed to consult with a third party.

"We see the moral of this story is … there needs to be an ongoing process for keeping workers collectively in the loop,” Faraday said.

Contact Bowman at bridgetbowman@rollcall.com and follow her on Twitter @bridgetbhc.

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