Let’s hear it for the little guy.
Nearly 70 janitors at Fort Belvoir will get more than $300,000 in back pay and benefits because the private contractor that employs them failed to pay the correct hourly wage, all required holiday pay, and health and welfare benefits since September, according to their union.
The Service Employees International Union 32 BJ said the Fort Belvoir contractor, Atlanta-based Brown & Pipkins, also known as Acsential, reached the back-pay agreement after the Labor Department found workplace violations.
News of the janitors’ victory at Fort Belvoir comes as a larger campaign by Good Jobs Nation is urging the Obama administration to take action to ensure that contractors pay workers living wages for low-level jobs in federal facilities.
Petrona Lazo, 50, along with four others, was fired from her job changing toilet paper, mopping floors and dusting furniture in February in “retaliation for protected union activities — that’s the legal finding, too,” said Julie Karant, a spokesman for the union. The company, she said, “claimed to not have sufficient funds to pay the workers.”
The company’s president, Deidre F. Brown Collins, said in an e-mail: “We have a new contract with the union, and we look forward to working with our employees. . . . We are happy things have been mutually resolved.” The Labor Department had no comment.
Through an interpreter, Lazo said she protested cuts in sick days, holidays and health benefits. Now she expects to get her job back when the settlement takes effect in August.
“This was a case of exploitation of people who were thought to be voiceless and had no ability to represent themselves,” Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) said in an interview. “That’s inevitably what happens to people who are perceived to be powerless.”
Another Fort Belvoir janitor, Maria Aleman, said in a union statement: “I was struggling with the loss of money and benefits as a single mother of three. We work very hard and are happy to put this ordeal behind us.”
Aleman’s $13.80 per hour wage was unlawfully reduced to $11, and her vacation days and sick leave time were cut in half, the union said.
After janitors staged a one-day strike in February to protest working conditions, Moran, whose district includes Fort Belvoir, sent a letter to Col. Gregory Gadson, the garrison commander. Moran’s letter said the allegations of unfair labor practices were “serious and disturbing.” He urged an investigation “and, if appropriate, immediate termination of the installation’s contract with Brown & Pipkins/Acsential.”
People such as Lazo and Aleman “do work [that] we wouldn’t want our children to do,” Moran said by telephone. “They do it at times we don’t see. Our bathrooms are scrubbed by the time we arrive in the morning, and we don’t have to reflect on how hard the work was or what they were compensated for it.”
That’s essentially the message of Good Jobs Nation. With a public relations campaign more extensive that those generally available to poor and low-income people, the Good Jobs folks are drawing attention to the plight of workers employed by contractors providing basic services in federal buildings. The campaign wants President Obama to issue an executive order or take other action to ensure that those employees are paid a living wage.
There’s no hope Congress will order that, Moran said. Given the current political composition on Capitol Hill, he said, “legislation would not have a chance in hell.”
A report by the Justice Department’s inspector general says the U.S. Marshals Service’s office in D.C. Superior Court needs to strengthen controls against waste, including excessive overtime.
The report, released Wednesday by Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz, said several employees “recorded over 1,000 hours of overtime each year [from October 2008 through September 2011] and earned more than $35,000 each in overtime.” One person who was the subject of an investigation into fraudulent overtime “recorded an average of 1,673 overtime hours each year and earned more in overtime ($68,331) than in base pay ($62,050).”
Efforts to reduce overtime have worked. Overtime dropped by almost half, from $2.7 million in fiscal 2009 to about $1.5 million in 2011, according to the report. Most of the overtime was because of staffing a cellblock.
“Supervisors told us they primarily relied on their experience and intuition to determine the number of weekday overtime shifts in the cellblock,” the report said. “We found this could potentially result in either overstaffing on the cellblock or understaffing that could risk the safety of those working and being held in the cellblock.”
The Marshals Service agreed with all the inspector general’s recommendations to improve procedures and cost controls.
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.