Bertrand Olotara, a cook in the Senate cafeteria, is finally getting the wages that are owed to him.
All of them this time.
I last wrote about Olotara in January. As you may recall, he and 60 co-workers staged a series of strikes demanding a living wage and a union. Stories of these workers’ financial struggles — one was homeless, others were on food stamps, yet another was moonlighting as a stripper — generated national outrage.
Which in turn added pressure for senators to, you know, do something to make sure the people who serve them food and clean their toilets earn better than starvation wages.
And to their credit, senators did something. When the cafeteria contract came up for renewal in December, senators won the workers big wage gains. Olotara’s hourly pay, for example, was supposed to rise more than $5, from $12.30 to at least $17.45.
Or so he thought. The contract, alas, turned out to be a bait-and-switch.
Within days, a manager began calling workers into his office. There they learned that their titles, but not their duties, would change. Titles matter, though, since the new contract specified pay by occupation.
When Olotara’s title switched from “cook” to the lower-paid “food service worker,” he was denied most of the raise he’d been promised.
Such reclassifications violated not only the hard-won new contract but potentially also federal law. Under the Service Contract Act, federal contract workers’ occupations are explicitly defined by the Labor Department based on job duties. They are not subject to the whims of employers who may be hoping to evade an expensive pay hike.
Good Jobs Nation, a labor organization that organized last year’s strikes, filed a complaint on the workers’ behalf with the Labor Department, which began investigating.
Senators got involved again, too.
In early February, after the dispute became public, Democratic Sens. Brian Schatz, Charles E. Schumer, Sherrod Brown, Elizabeth Warren, Al Franken and Cory Booker held a closed-door meeting with the Architect of the Capitol, Stephen Ayers, who oversees legislative branch contracts. They told Ayers in no uncertain terms that they wanted this dispute addressed, pronto, according to people familiar with the meeting. Ayers said his office was undertaking a top-to-bottom audit of cafeteria workers’ classifications.
Finally, last week, at a Senate appropriations hearing, Schatz grilled Ayers about the audit results. Ayers testified that of the approximately 90 workers in the Senate cafeteria, his office found that 51 — that is, more than half — were likely misclassified.
In response to this audit, the contractor running the cafeteria immediately corrected the classification of 35 workers, Ayers said. His office and the company, Restaurant Associates, are still negotiating over the status of another eight workers and have referred eight more to the Labor Department for resolution. (Restaurant Associates referred requests for comment to the Architect of the Capitol; the Architect’s office in turn referred me to the Labor Department; and the Labor Department declined to comment on an ongoing investigation.)
Three days after that hearing, Olotara was again called into his manager’s office.
“You should be very happy today,” his manager said. His classification was officially being restored to cook, and his pay was being raised to $17.97. He was also awarded about $1,400 in back pay.
Olotara was indeed very happy, not least because the raise will allow him to quit his second job at Whole Foods — which in turn means that, for the first time in years, he can stop working seven days a week. He’ll use the extra time to write a book, find other ways to contribute to the national antipoverty fight and, most important, spend more time with his five children.
“When they hear daddy will only work one job, they will be very happy,” said Olotara, who is a single father.
If it sounds like a lot of work went into making sure Olotara got paid what he was legally entitled to, that’s because it did. Indeed, at last week’s hearing, Schatz berated Ayers for forcing senators to get involved.
“I do not think it is members of the Senate’s job to serve essentially as labor lawyers for 86 individuals,” he said.
While I’m glad senators intervened, I agree with Schatz: It’s not really senators’ job to micromanage the treatment of low-wage Senate cafeteria workers. It is, however, their job to macromanage, if you will — to set federal policies that ensure all the millions of vulnerable low-wage workers get a fair shake and a chance to escape poverty.
The workers who don’t have the ears of a national newspaper conveniently located nearby — or of a hungry legislative aide waiting in line for lunch — are the ones who most need these senators’ attention. But with the federal minimum wage stuck at $7.25 for nearly seven years now, and mounting attacks nationwide on their right to unionize, it’s not clear they’re getting it.