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Senate Food Workers Allege ‘Raise Theft’

By Bridget Bowman

After achieving an apparent victory with wage increases in a new contract, Senate food workers now say that a number of workers have been illegally barred from receiving a raise.

In a complaint filed with the Labor Department on Jan. 14, Good Jobs Nation, the group that has been organizing worker strikes over the past year, charged that the Senate’s food service vendor altered workers’ classification, to make them no longer eligible for substantial wage increases included in a contract renegotiated in December.

According to the complaint, congressional staff members were told at a Dec. 14 briefing that minimum wages for Level 1 cooks would be raised by $3.65, to $17.45 an hour, and Level 2 cooks would would receive a $5.70 increase to $19.50 an hour. But the complaint alleges several cooks were reclassified as a lower-tier “food service worker,” meaning their wages did not increase as expected.

Under the new contract, food service workers’ minimum wage increased to $13.80 per hour. A labor organizer said so far they know of roughly a dozen workers who have had their classification downgraded, even though they still perform the duties of a cook.

Good Jobs Nation alleged that the vendor, Restaurant Associates, a subsidiary of the British-based Compass Group, violated the Service Contract Act establishing minimum wages for contract employees. The group is asking that the Labor Department investigate the allegations, require Compass Group to pay its workers the higher wages and any back pay that resulted from their lower classifications.

The Senate Rules and Administration Committee, which oversees the food service contract, is aware of the issue and has directed the Architect of the Capitol, which negotiated the contract, to look into the claims and resolve them.

“We are aware of existing concerns and are working to get them resolved,” AOC spokeswoman Laura Condeluci wrote in a Friday email. Restaurant Associates spokesman Sam Souccar also said Friday that company officials received notification yesterday that a complaint was filed and “are looking into the matter.”

Good Jobs Nation has filed a handful of unfair labor practice charges against Restaurant Associates, and charged that there was a “pattern of retaliation” against workers who participated in strikes. In the past, the National Labor Relations Board has found merit in allegations that Restaurant Associates violated labor laws.

The “raise theft” issues were unwelcome news to workers who have gone on strike roughly a half dozen times since November 2014 to push for higher wages and union representation.

Bertrand Olatara, 45, who has worked as a Senate cook for two years and has participated in a number of strikes, was one of the workers affected by the change.

Before the new contract, he was making $12.30 an hour. When the contract was reached, Olatara said a Restaurant Associates executive from New York held a brief meeting with workers, informing them of the new contract and that a number of workers would see raises.

“We thought we were going to make something better, $15 or more for some people,” Olatara said. But then he discovered his wages would only increase to $13.80 an hour and was called into a manager’s office to sign papers acknowledging he would now be classified as a food service worker instead of a cook.

“I didn’t agree because I’m not a food service worker, and I didn’t sign the paper,” Olatara said. He is still under the new classification, but still performs the same duties as a cook. Olatara, a single father of five, works seven days a week, and said making $15 an hour at the Capitol would allow him to quit his second job on the weekends.

Olatara pointed out that workers did not have any voice in the contract negotiations, and emphasized that forming a union could help their cause. In the meantime, he will continue pushing to be make sure that he and his colleagues are treated fairly under the new contract.

”I was very disappointed. That’s why I think we have to fight,” Olatara said. “The fight isn’t over.”