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Low-wage Senate workers get a raise — and then the shaft

By Catherine Rampell

This story was supposed to have a happy ending.

Last year, about 60 low-wage federal contract workers at the Senate cafeteria staged a series of strikes to demand a living wage and a union. Some were on food stamps; one was moonlighting as a stripper to make ends meet; another was homeless. Their stories, and their bravery, soon attracted powerful allies to their cause.

Catherine Rampell is an opinion columnist at The Washington Post. View Archive
Senators and their staff organized boycotts of the cafeteria. Dozens of senators signed letters brimming with righteous indignation over the treatment of the hard-working people who cook their lunches and clean their toilets. Some legislators held private meetings with the workers, offering attaboys and never-give-up-the-fights.

One presidential candidate (I’ll give you one Bern-ing guess who) even spoke at five of the workers’ walkouts, once in the pouring rain.

Finally, after months of negotiations with the legislative agency that handles procurement at the Capitol, the company that runs the cafeteria agreed to a new contract giving its employees a sizable raise. It wasn’t everything the workers wanted, but it was still a big win. Some workers who had seen their pay stagnate for years would get a bump of about $5 per hour.

A round of self-congratulations commenced.

“I am thankful for the employees that do so much for the Senate day in and day out, and I am glad their concerns were heard and taken into consideration in the new contract,” crowed Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), chairman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, which oversees Capitol campus matters.

But it appears some workers were shortchanged, right under the noses of their Senate champions.

Days after the new contract was signed, a cafeteria manager quietly began calling some workers into his office. He demanded they sign paperwork acknowledging new job titles.

“I’m a cook, and I’ve always been a cook,” said 45-year-old Bertrand Olotara. “Now suddenly he’s telling me I’m a ‘food service worker.’ ”

Olotara’s duties didn’t change; he’s still cooking burgers, eggs and Philly cheesesteaks, just as he always had.

But his title matters.

See, wages in the new contract were occupation-specific. And lo and behold, “food service worker” falls into a lower tier than “cook.”

Rather than getting the big raise Olotara expected as a cook — which would have upped his pay to $17.45 — he was entitled to just $13.80 as a “food service worker.”

Sure, that’s better than his old pay (which was $12.30). But it’s nowhere near what he was promised — or what senators proclaimed workers such as Olotara were entitled to.

Maybe the difference between $13.80 and $17.45 doesn’t sound like much. To Olotara, a single father of five children, it would have meant everything.

It would have allowed him to quit his second job, working weekends at Whole Foods, where he’s been moonlighting for more than a decade.

Which in turn would have given him more time to spend with his children, the eldest of whom will attend college in the fall.

And maybe to go back to writing poetry. Or to school. Or to compose the book bouncing around in his head (tentative title: “Under the Shadow of the Senate”).

There are many things Olotara would like to do, but now, working seven days a week, he just doesn’t have time.

At least six others were reclassified in to lower-wage titles without any change in job duties, according to Good Jobs Nation, a labor organization that has been trying to unionize these workers. Good Jobs Nation recently filed a complaint with the Labor Department on the workers’ behalf. It argues that these effective demotions violate not only the new contract, but federal law, too.

Under the Service Contract Act, the occupations of government contract workers are narrowly defined according to the tasks they perform, as laid out in the Labor Department’s directory of occupations. Employers don’t get to just change definitions willy-nilly, even if doing so protects profit margins.

Maybe there’s an innocent explanation for why workers including Olotara got suddenly demoted in title but not in job responsibilities. If there is, no one has publicly offered it.

Restaurant Associates, the private contractor involved, said only that it has “been notified by the Department of Labor and are looking into the matter.” The Architect of the Capitol, the agency that handled the contract, declined to release any details about the contract itself, which has not been made public. A spokeswoman said the agency is “aware of existing concerns” and is “working to get them resolved.”

And near as I can tell, none of the senators who boasted last year about how they were looking out for the little people have said anything about how those little people never got their big raises.

Do they not know or do they not care?