Vanegas, a federal contract worker at Quick Pita inside DC’s Ronald Reagan Building, said that he worked upwards of sixty hours a week, but did not receive overtime pay. He claimed that he was paid $6.50 an hour under the table even though federal law dictates that contract workers like Vanegas should make the local prevailing wage — $8.25 an hour in DC.
Vanegas’s legal status was never an issue during his three years of working at Quick Pita, even though numerous police officers and immigration agents made up his customer base. Only when he was vocal about being underpaid and overworked did the Federal Protective Service, a security branch of the Department of Homeland Security, show up to take away Vanegas’s work badge. At the same time, he was turned over to immigration officials. He also lost his job.
Vanegas is hardly the only exploited federal contract worker. The Department of Labor is investigating allegations of wage theft and inhumane working conditions of other food venues in the Ronald Reagan Building. Meanwhile, the federal government employs more low-wage workers than Wal-Mart and McDonalds combined. Contract workers in the Reagan building organized a strike in May. Ten workers were initially fired for striking. They were later given their jobs back.
Irrespective of the workplace location, unscrupulous employers frequently exploit low-wage workers and fire employees who participate in strikes. Some of the nation’s largest companies, such as Walmart, deny their employees a livable wage and retaliate against workers who protest.
Immigrant workers are even more vulnerable because they can be threatened with deportation. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that undocumented workers cannot seek basic labor protections because they are not legally allowed to work. Therefore, employers can subject undocumented immigrants to abuse and dangerous working conditions for little pay, without worrying about legal action.
Even as immigrants remain fearful of calling out labor abuse, states are proactively working to curb undocumented worker abuse. Hawaii recently became the second state to pass labor protections for domestic workers. Californian officials rolled out a set of bills that would punish employers who threaten to deport workers and provide immigrants with legal pathways to report abuse.