Fighting Wage Theft in the Senate Cafeterias

July 28th, 2016 by Phil Mattera

Trade deals tend to be the focus of many discussions these days about stagnant wages, but it’s important not to forget the role played by old-fashioned repressive management. Such a reminder just emerged in a case brought by the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division involving lousy working conditions at the very heart of U.S. policymaking.

DOL found that Restaurant Associates and its subcontractor Personnel Plus have been violating the McNamara-O’Hara Service Contract Act by improperly classifying foodservice workers in U.S. Senate cafeterias in order to pay them less than their proper wage. The employer was also found to be engaging in wage theft by requiring workers to begin their duties prior to scheduled starting times without compensation. DOL announced that hundreds of the workers will receive back pay in excess of $1 million.

Credit for the case belongs largely to the workers themselves, who for the past two years have been agitating about unfair working conditions with the help of Good Jobs Nation (which has no organizational relationship to my employer Good Jobs First).

In 2015 workers staged a series of strikes, prompting friendly senators (including Bernie Sanders) to put pressure on Restaurant Associates to agree to a modification of its contract requiring wage increases. Pay rates for job categories were boosted, but at the same time the company forced many workers into lower categories. The Washington Post reported on the underhanded practices back in January, citing as an example a cook who should have seen his pay jump to $17.45 an hour (from $12.30), but he was reclassified as a “food service worker” with a wage of $13.80.

Restaurant Associates is a subsidiary of Compass Group, one of the giants of the international foodservice industry. The UK-based corporation has been involved in numerous other controversies about its labor practices. In 2014 Compass Group USA paid $5 million to settle a wage-and-hour class action case. Earlier this year, UNITE HERE filed unfair labor practice charges against a Compass unit called Eurest for its actions during an organizing drive by foodservice workers at Intel’s headquarters in California.

There are other blemishes on its record. In 2012 New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that Compass Group USA would pay $18 million to settle allegations that it overcharged school lunch programs throughout the state. In 2015 Chartwells, a Compass company, paid $19.4 million to settle another school lunch case, this one in the District of Columbia in which the allegations included poor food quality as well as excessive costs.

Some member of the Senate are now calling for the termination of the Restaurant Associates contract. Deciding what should take its place is not easy. All of the other major foodservice companies have their own accountability challenges. And conditions were certainly not better before the Senate began contracting out the management of its cafeterias in 2008. It used to be known as the “last plantation” because of the poor treatment of workers.

At the very least, the Senate cafeteria workers need a strong union like that enjoyed by their counterparts at the House facilities. The reason they don’t is complicated and involves inter-union relationships. Good Jobs Nation deserves credit for helping bring about the DOL settlement, but a solid collective bargaining agreement would be even better.

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