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For the past 25 years, 61-year-old Hazel Dews has worked the night shift on Capitol Hill, cleaning and vacuuming dozens of Senate offices and bathrooms. Yet, for all her hard labor, she claims she still makes about a dollar an hour less than the men on the Capitol cleaning crew. Now she and other women custodians alleging gender discrimination have banded together in one of the first major class actions against an agency of Congress. Dews and the roughly 275 other women who clean Congress have former House speaker Newt Gingrich to thank. In 1995, as part of the Gingrich-inspired Contract with America, Congress passed the Congressional Accountability Act, which required it to comply with the civil rights, labor, and job health and safety laws the rest of the country has to obey. That law cleared the way for congressional employees to unionize and sue their employer. “It wouldn’t have crossed my mind to sue Congress before,” says Barbara Kraft, a longtime labor lawyer and name partner at Beins, Axelrod & Kraft, which is representing the custodians. Kraft initially filed suit in 1997 on behalf of about 50 custodians. They alleged that their employer, the architect of the Capitol, routinely paid the laborers on the cleaning staff, who are virtually all men, $11.41 an hour, while the custodians, almost all of whom are women, earned on average $10.29 an hour. Kraft contends that the pay policy violated the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. In December 1998 she requested class certification, claiming that dozens more custodians were also affected. At the time, U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan suggested delaying action on the motion until the parties had exhausted settlement efforts. But settlement talks over the next year went nowhere. In late February, the women claimed their first small victory when the judge granted class status. In a faxed statement to The American Lawyer, architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman declined to comment on the details of the case, other than to deny that his office bases pay scales or job classifications on gender. He did say, however, that his office has made “good-faith efforts” to settle the case: “Clearly, there are some custodial workers who want to have their day in court, and that is their right under the law.” The architect’s office is represented by D.C. assistant U.S. attorney Stacy Ludwig, who also declined comment. The plaintiffs, who now include more than 300 current and former women custodians, want at least $2.5 million in back pay — the amount they would have made had they earned the same wages as the laborers over the last four years. “Per woman it’s a very small amount, in the context of what it’s costing the taxpayers to litigate this,” says Kraft. Her clients are also seeking damages, interest on the back pay, and attorneys’ fees. Kraft hopes to go to trial in the next six months, but concedes that may be optimistic. Either way, plaintiff Dews intends to retire in September, though she will remain active in the case. “Even if I don’t get a dime, I feel good to know we did this,” Dews says of the class action. “This is like pie in their face.”

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