Senate Cafeteria Workers: Vindication for Some and a Continuing Fight for Others

Lauren Godles

Lauren Godles is a student at Harvard Law School.

In February, we reported that the DOL seemed like the best hope for Senate cafeteria workers who had been reclassified and denied the benefits they anticipated in their new contract with Restaurant Associates (RA).  While the DOL investigation is ongoing, the workers have also made some promising advances through a top Capitol Administrator and a Senate Appropriations Legislative Branch subcommittee.

Architect of the Capitol Stephen T. Ayers told a legislative subcommittee last Tuesday that suspicions had been raised about a widespread problem of reclassifications shortly after the renewed RA contract was signed last December.  These “suspicions” were likely bolstered by the extensive campaigns of the workers themselves to call attention to and attempt to remedy the “wage theft.”  Roll Call reports that last month, Ayers met with several Senate Democrats about this issue, and they demanded a thorough investigation.  As a result, Ayers and his deputies interviewed 86 workers and found that RA had properly classified only 35 of them.  RA responded by immediately reclassifying 35 of the 51 found to be improperly classified. This leaves 16 workers still in dispute.  Half of those are currently being negotiated, and half of them have been referred to DOL.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), the ranking member of the subcommittee, made two significant comments at last Tuesday’s hearing that cast doubt on the future of the RA contract in the Senate.  First, he was quoted in the Washington Post as saying “Restaurant Associates improperly, intentionally and systematically misclassified employees.”  Second, he asked Ayers whether it would be possible to reconsider the contract with RA, given the recent findings.  These telling statements support the possibility of ending RA’s contract, especially given that the NLRB has “found merit in allegations that Restaurant Associates violated labor laws” in the past in connection with these workers.  Good Jobs Nation, the group that has been organizing the workers, has advocated for the contract to be re-bid, based on the idea that wage theft constitutes a breach of the contract by RA.

The Congressional Representatives who met with Ayers and put pressure on him and his staff to investigate possible wage theft are to be applauded, as the investigations led to the immediate reclassification of 35 workers.  Those are 35 people for whom the wage increase may mean the difference between having to work one job or two.  However, it is the DOL that has the authority to order back pay, withhold funds from the contractor, cancel the contract, or even disbar the contractor from future federal contracts.  And the politicians who frequent the cafeterias in question must continue to exert pressure on DOL to take swift and appropriate actions against RA for actions found to be intentional violations of the contract.

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