Naval Academy owes back pay to workers

Arbitrator rules that campus restaurant employees denied breaks are due $14,000

April 26, 2007|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,sun reporter

The Naval Academy will pay a total of about $14,000 to more than two dozen workers at a campus restaurant who were denied lunch breaks over several years, marking the fourth time since 2004 that the school has lost a dispute with the union representing its civilian workers.

A federal arbitrator ordered the settlement, which both sides agreed to in recent weeks, after ruling that the military college violated labor laws and created an environment of "fear" and "intimidation" among employees at the Officers' and Faculty Club in Annapolis.

Aside from this case, the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1923 in the past year has invoked three other unrelated arbitrations and filed four complaints of unfair labor practices.

"In some areas, management refuses to negotiate, and they are really combative," said Ed Gough, vice president of the local chapter.

Cmdr. Edward L. Austin, a Naval Academy spokesman first contacted for this article Monday, said yesterday that three school officials familiar with the negotiations have been unavailable for comment.

"Arbitration is a valuable tool for ensuring fair and equitable resolutions," he said in a written statement. "The Academy respects the decision in this case and is complying with the order."

The union represents more than 400 employees who work on the campus, known as "the Yard," as cooks, warehouse stockers, cashiers, caterers and laundry plant laborers. Nearly a fourth of them work in a "flex," or temporary, status, working up to 30 hours a week and receiving no annual sick leave, vacation or health benefits, said Aristedes Pelikanos, another union vice president.

The contract states that those who work 30 hours a week or more for a year will become permanent employees with rights to leave and benefits, but workers have complained that they are never assigned enough hours to earn permanent status, he said.

This has become a point of contention recently as the academy and the union renegotiate a contract that dates to May 2001. Still, the working atmosphere has improved since federal arbitrator Barbara B. Franklin sharply criticized how the restaurant was run in her decision last July, Pelikanos said.

"It's not to the point that management has made a 180-degree about-face," he said. "We still have problems all over the Yard, and we're trying to work with management to alleviate the problems. Sometimes we have to use the grievance process to get it across to management that they're doing something wrong."

In his statement, Austin declined to comment about the flex employees beyond explaining their role, citing contract negotiations, but said the academy "endeavors to maintain a positive, professional working environment which fosters dignity and respect for all."

The three previous disputes that the academy lost involved only a few employees and focused on school officials' failure to recognize or consult with union leaders.

After the July arbitration, the union hoped to negotiate a higher dollar amount for the employees who said they were denied lunch breaks. According to documents obtained by The Sun from the arbitration decision, many of the 38 to 40 workers in the club's restaurant, catering operations, warehouse and office complained to supervisors when they weren't allowed a break and weren't paid for working through an expected timeout. Evidence reviewed for the arbitration showed that some had been paid for the missed break on occasion.

The time clock for employees automatically deducted 30 minutes from each day for a break, the report said. Employees who didn't take the break could fill out a form noting they hadn't received it.

Franklin denied the union's request that the settlement extend to employees who had not filled out forms, Pelikanos said. If that request had been granted, the settlement would have amounted to $50,000 to $100,000.

The academy argued in arbitration hearings in January, February and March 2006 that the union had shown "a few isolated instances" when employees worked through breaks without pay and claimed the union contract didn't necessarily require the academy to provide lunch breaks.

Franklin disagreed, determining that the academy had violated the contract and the Fair Labor Standards Act. She granted back pay to current and former employees during the period between July 15, 2002, and July 15, 2006.

"I also credit testimony that painted a picture of the workplace - or at least a segment of the workplace - as one of fear, intimidation and a woeful lack of knowledge by the employees of their rights," she wrote.

Pelikanos said the arbitrator's "strong words" sent an important message. "She came down a little rough on them, but they deserved it," he said. "This was going on for many, many years beyond the three years for which we got relief."

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