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The Workers Who Feed Members Of Congress Will Share $1 Million In Back Pay After Years Of Abuse

U.S. contract workers carry signs and banners as they demonstrate outside the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, Wednesday, July 22, 2015. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/STEVE HELBER
U.S. contract workers carry signs and banners as they demonstrate outside the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, Wednesday, July 22, 2015. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/STEVE HELBER

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.

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These People Serve Meals In The Halls Of Power And They Still Can’t Make Ends MeetEconomy by CREDIT: Good Jobs Nation Workers at the U.S. Capitol building are welcoming Congress back to town with a…thinkprogress.orgA 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.http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2014/07/31/3466134/obama-executive-order-contractors/

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.

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“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.”

Federal contract workers have been striking for more than three years at other locations like D.C.’s Union Station, often with progressive members of Congress jumping in to show solidarity. But things accelerated once the Capitol strikes began in late 2014 — in part because Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) helped pressure the Department of Labor to act, Geevarghese said.

“I think it’s the culmination of all these activities, both by lawmakers and by workers, that led to the announcement,” he said. “Now we’ve won some measure of justice for this particular group of workers. But these workers are gonna continue to protest to win collective bargaining rights.”