Politics

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

Company illegally withheld wages from hundreds of workers, Labor Department finds

U.S Senate contract employees along with hundreds of workers from the U.S. Capitol, Pentagon, Smithsonian Institution and other federal landmarks marched to the Capitol to call on a living wage of at least $15 an hour on Wednesday, April 22, 2015. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Hundreds of Senate cafeteria workers will receive a total of more than $1 million in back pay after the Labor Department found that they were illegally denied wages they had earned, officials announced Tuesday.  

Senate food service vendor Restaurant Associates and its subcontractor, Personnel Plus, improperly classified workers in order to pay them for lower-wage positions and required them to work overtime without compensation in violation of federal and local labor laws, the agency said in a news release. The contractors also failed to pay required health and other benefits.  

“Workers in the restaurant industry are among the lowest-paid workers in our economy," said the department’s Wage and Hour Division Administrator David Weil . "Most struggle to afford life’s basic expenses and pay their bills; they shouldn’t have to deal with paychecks that don’t accurately reflect their hard work and the wages to which they are legally entitled.”   

The order applied to 674 workers, the statement said.  

“This shows that when workers act, workers can win," said Joseph Geevarghese, Director of Good Jobs Nation, a labor advocacy group that argued for the Senate workers.  "Because U.S. contract workers went on strike and filed legal multiple complaints, the U.S. government is beginning to stop labor abuses on Capitol Hill."  

A representative from Restaurant Associates said "administrative technicalities" led to misclassifying some workers.  

"Restaurant Associates has corrected the classifications and is working closely with the DOL to ensure payments are made as soon as possible to all impacted Associates,"said senior vice president Sam Souccar in a statement. "We are 100 percent committed to ensuring classifications are accurate going forward."  

After learning of the decision, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio called for terminating the Senate's contract with Restaurant Associates  

"The Senate must refuse to do business with any unscrupulous vendors who flout the law and put profits above the rights and economic security of their employees," Reid said in a statement. "We should take steps immediately to audit this company’s contracts throughout the federal government to ensure that this isn’t happening anywhere else."  

Senate Democrats called on the Labor Department in March to investigate the vendor to see whether mistreatment of workers had occurred in other areas of the federal government. 

 
[ Senators Want Labor Department Audit of Food Vendor ]
 
Senate food workers participated in a number of strikes over the past year to push for higher wages and union representation. The Architect of the Capitol renegotiated a seven-year contract with Restaurant Associates in December, which was supposed to grant raises to most Senate workers.   [ Restaurant Associates Pushes Back on Senators' Criticism } But, shortly after the contract took effect, workers raised concerns that their jobs were reclassified at lower wage levels. The Architect of the Capitol, at the request of top Senate Democrats, found that to be accurate for roughly half of the workers. 
According to Restaurant Associates' website, the company also operates dining facilities at five Smithsonian locations. The company also runs the Capitol Visitor Center cafeteria.  
 
The Department of Labor is reviewing whether to ban the company from obtaining future contracts with the federal government.
 
Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.
 
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