In late 2015, Senate cafeteria workers made headlines when they organized to demand that Restaurant Associates, the exclusive caterer at the U.S. Senate, pay a living wage (covered here and here in our News and Commentary). The workers’ efforts included strikes and walkouts and received high-profile, bipartisan support. Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell posited: “This story was supposed to have a happy ending.” But that happy ending has proven elusive. Despite securing higher wages in a new contract, the workers are being reclassified into lower pay grades and seeing their raises shrink. Now that media attention has dwindled, the Department of Labor (DOL) represents the workers’ most immediate hope for vindication.
Background: Privatization of the Senate Cafeteria and the Fight for a Living Wage
In 2008, Democratic leadership privatized the Senate cafeterias in order to cut costs. Restaurant Associates won the contract bid and now employs 115 food-service workers in the Senate. The company is owned by the British firm Compass Group, whose annual profits exceed one billion dollars.
The contract with Restaurant Associates came up for renegotiation on December 1, 2015. Targeting that critical moment, Senate cafeteria workers lobbied to secure living wages. They staged strikes and walkouts, and the national media embraced their stories. The public was surprised to learn that one worker had been homeless for five years, one was a single mother moonlighting as a stripper to make ends meet, and many others were working long hours at second, supplemental jobs. One worker was being paid more at KFC than she was at the Senate. The workers partnered with Good Jobs Nation, which has been active in the Fight for $15 (profiled in our Fast Food News series) and is funded largely by unions.
When Restaurant Associates signed a new seven-year contract in December, it included substantial raises and appeared to be a victory for the workers. Though it fell short of the $15-mark, the minimum wage rose from $10.50 to $13.30, and the average rose from $11.50 to $14.50. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a win.
Reclassifications Under the New Contract
Under Service Contract Act (SCA), which controls wages of federal contractors and subcontractors, a worker’s title determines his or her wages. These titles and responsibilities are laid out in the Directory of Occupations, which are federal regulations promulgated by the U.S. DOL. It is a violation of federal law to misclassify workers under the SCA.
Days after the new Restaurant Associates contract was finalized, a manager began meeting with some employees and demanding they sign paperwork agreeing to new job titles. The new job titles ensured the workers’ raises were substantially less than they had been promised in the new contract—even though their responsibilities hadn’t changed.
The problematic nature of the reclassifications is clear in the case of Betrand Olotara, who cooks burgers, eggs, and Philly cheesesteaks at the Senate cafeteria. He was formerly a “Cook,” but has been reclassified as a “Food Service Worker.” Olotara’s work responsibilities are consistent with the job description for “Cook I” under the Directory of Occupations, which include “preparing small quantities of quickly prepared food such as steaks, chops, cutlets, hamburgers, eggs, salads and other similar items.” But Olotara’s responsibilities are clearly distinct and more complex than those of a “Food Service Worker.” A Food Service Worker “washes, peels, scrapes, and cuts vegetables and fruits [and] prepares simple salads and toast,” in addition to cleaning and setting up dining areas. A food service worker does not cook any food, except for toast.
Under the new contract, Olotara, as a Cook, would have gotten a significant raise from $12.30 to $17.45 per hour. But because he is now a Food Service Worker, his wages are capped at $13.80. The $1.50 raise is something, but it’s not enough to allow Olotara to quit working weekends at his second job.
Limited Recourses: Media and Legal Shortcomings for Worker Protections
The media and political sources that buoyed the workers through the contract re-negotiations are proving inadequate in the face of reclassifications.
Though the media initially bolstered the workers’ campaign, the story has now largely vanished from the press, or been relegated to Opinion Sections. In December of 2015, the month during which the contract with Restaurant Associates was renewed, the New York Times’ Politics section featured only one story covering congressional cafeterias. It was called “A Bipartisan Outcry in the House, Over the Cafeteria.” Why the outcry? House legislators and their assistants were forced to resort to the Senate cafeteria, because the roast beef sandwich was removed from the House dining hall.
George Faraday, the Policy Director for Good Jobs Nation, told OnLabor that “Compass’s decision to try to cheat its workers out of their rights under the Service Contract Act under the noses of the very legislators who made the law, shows just how weak the enforcement of the SCA has become.” Faraday and his colleagues took action and filed a complaint with DOL on January 14, 2016, requesting that the DOL investigate Compass for “falsely and unlawfully downgrading [the workers’] occupational categor[ies].” The DOL can order back pay, withhold funds from the contractor, cancel the contract, or even disbar the contractor from future federal contracts. However, DOL has total discretion when it comes to such investigations and remedies. And because there is no private right of action under the SCA, the workers can do very little but wait and hope that the DOL asserts its authority.
Although there are only 115 contract workers employed in the Senate eateries, U.S. government contractors employ more than two million low-wage workers—more than Wal-Mart and McDonald’s combined. This story is far bigger than the Senate cafeteria. Just ask Tracy Allen, who makes $11.49 an hour at the Capitol Visitor’s Center. She went on strike seven times, but hasn’t seen any changes to her hourly pay.
Before the new contract with Restaurant Associates was finalized, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), called the Senate cafeteria workers “part of the Senate family” who “deserve[d] to be treated as such.” But where are those politicians now that their cooks are being effectively demoted? They are the ones who must put pressure on the DOL to remedy the problem playing out in front of them as they eat their roast beef sandwiches.