Food workers say blame for shabby treatment is strictly on the House

March 16, 1993|By Seattle Post-Intelligencer

WASHINGTON -- You are a cafeteria employee, working by the hour and struggling to make ends meet.

Abruptly, a new boss takes over: You lose your union contract; you lose expected increases in your wages; the personal cost of your health benefits goes up to the point where you drop the coverage.

Meanwhile, entry level wages at your workplace are cut from nearly $8 an hour to $5.50 and some benefits are scrapped.

Sounds like a hard boss to work for. Who is this new boss?

It is the U.S. House of Representatives, run by the Democratic Party, self-proclaimed champion of the working man.

Specifically, the House restaurant complex is run by the House Administration Committee, chaired by Rep. Charlie Rose, a North Carolina Democrat.

Because Congress has exempted itself from laws that would apply to any private company running a restaurant, Mr. Rose and his committee have enormous leeway in how they operate the system and treat the workers.

Simply put, when the more than 200 employees of the House restaurants worked for a private company, they were subject to federal labor laws. Now they aren't.

That means any raises are at the pleasure of the committee. Worker safety on the job is not regulated by federal law. Employees don't have the right to be represented by labor unions in collective bargaining. There is no binding arbitration for disputes.

"They have treated us really bad," said Bettie Pearson, 55, a mother of seven who serves food in a cafeteria in the basement of the main Capitol Building.

"Seventeen months ago, House administration took over and we had a big meeting with Congressman Rose and in that meeting he said we're not out to make a profit, you will not be affected in your benefits, you'll get your raises," she said. "He has not done anything for us; it is worse, really, really bad."

Ms. Pearson remains active with the Food and Beverage Workers Union Local 32, which represented the workers when they were employed by Service America.

That company ran the restaurant system until 1991, when Congress took over as the restaurant was under assault for poor management.

It was supposed to be a temporary move, but there is no indication the committee is ready to turn over the reins anytime soon.

In a memo quoted in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call last week, ranking member Bill Thomas of California complained about the timing to fellow Republicans on the panel.

The Democrats in control of the committee "indicated over a year and a half ago that the restaurant would be run by the majority [the Democratic-controlled committee] for a period of only six months. That time period has long since expired, but the restaurant continues to be run under partisan control."

Ms. Pearson and dozens of other cafeteria workers in the Capitol and House office buildings are sporting large yellow buttons that read, "Guarantees, Not Promises." They want a new private contractor and a union contract that locks in a schedule of raises and gives workers more rights.

Since the committee took over, the workers say, life on the job has been filled with confusion, unpredictability and at times, humiliation. Problem areas include:

* Starting wages. The committee has scaled back entry level wages to $5.50 an hour. That's nearly $2.50 an hour less than they would be getting if the old Service America contract were still in effect, according to a copy of the old contract provided by the union.

* Raises. Heidi Pender, a top aide to Mr. Rose, said the committee intends to make sure the workers are no worse off than under the old contract and that the raises will keep them roughly where they would have been. They got one raise of 4.2 percent last year. Ms. Pender said another 3.7 percent increase will be coming soon.

But Local 32 President Minor Christian says the workers are lagging badly in buying power. If the old contract were still in effect, they would have received four raises over the past 17 months, rather than one.

* Benefits. House restaurant workers say that under Democratic committee management, restaurant employees are having to pay more for benefits and in some cases have lost them entirely.

Under the union contract, employees were provided with a life insurance policy at no charge. Today they have to pay for that policy (with Congress contributing half the cost, according to Ms. Pender).

* Uniforms. Workers in the House restaurant system must wear uniforms. Under the old contract, the company provided uniforms and 5 cents an hour to cover laundry costs.

Today, some employees have not been issued uniforms and workers complain that the laundry subsidy has been scrapped.

* Grievance procedures. When Service America ran the restaurants, there was a standard procedure under which disputes between workers and management could be settled, if necessary, by an outside board of arbitrators. Now, the court of last appeal is the Administration Committee itself.

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