Senate workers brought their fight against what they say is "wage theft" to a hearing on Tuesday, bringing the national debate over income inequality to the confines of Congress. Several Senate food service workers have recently had their job titles reclassified to reflect higher wages after employees alleged a contractor tried to stiff them out of a raise.
But some workers said their situations haven’t changed and they used a Senate Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee hearing Tuesday to plead their case directly to Architect of the Capitol Stephen T. Ayers.
“Hearing from us will make a big difference,” Bertrand Olotara, a worker in the Senate's Dirksen Cafeteria said after workers secured a commitment to meet with Ayers.
Ayers told the committee his office had interviewed 86 employees of Restaurant Associates, the AOC contractor at the center of the dispute. Of those, 35 were found to be properly classified but another 35 were reclassified to reflect higher wages that were negotiated into contracts in December.
Sixteen cases remain open – eight of which Ayers said are still being discussed and eight where both sides completely disagree.
Workers in Senate restaurants and the Capitol Visitor Center have gone on strike in the past year to call for higher wages and union representation.
The Architect's office renegotiated a seven-year Senate food service contract with Restaurant Associates in December, which included raises for many of the workers. But some workers alleged they were misclassified so they would not receive the proper wage increase, leading to a Labor Department investigation into the allegations.
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, the committee’s ranking member, asked Ayers if it was possible to reconsider the contract, which the architect said was possible after all investigations were complete.
Restaurant Associates referred questions to the AOC.
Last month, Schatz and a handful of Senate Democrats met with Ayers and Chief Operating Officer Christine Merdon to discuss the allegations of raise theft.
"We conveyed to the architect what we found completely outrageous," Schatz said in a Feb. 22 interview.
"They knew exactly what we wanted," Schatz added. "They agreed to it. And then they undermined it.”
The meeting included Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Senate Democrat and ranking member of the Rules Committee, which has jurisdiction over the food contract.
Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Al Franken of Minnesota also joined the meeting, along with a staffer for Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois.
According to a source familiar with the meeting, Ayers told the senators that his office had identified at least six individuals who were misclassified. The senators demanded a top-to-bottom review of each hourly wage employee at the Senate dining facilities and the Capitol Visitor Center, and Ayers committed to conducting that review.
Separate from the senators' pressuring the AOC to act, the group that organized Senate food worker strikes pushed for the architect to halt Restaurant Associates' contract with the Capitol, arguing that the alleged wage theft is a breach of its contract.
"[U]nless RA shows cause as to why it is not in default, AOC should rebid the contract and require any successor contractor to rehire RA's current workforce — at the proper wage rates," Good Jobs Nation's counsel George W. Faraday wrote in a Feb. 11 letter to the AOC, obtained by Roll Call.
Schatz said the senators discussed "all options" in their February meeting with Ayers, and he said "everything is on the table."
Olotara received national media attention in the last year for going on strike to get a raise. He was reclassified and as a result made far less money than expected under the terms of the renegotiated contract.
Olotara said he and other Senate food service workers had not been among the cases Ayers referred to in his office’s review.
He was with a handful of food service workers who attended the Senate hearing Tuesday to meet Ayers and request a meeting. Ayers agreed.
Olotara said while he welcomed the attention to the cause, he hopes the meeting with Ayers will result in more action.
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