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Every year as Labor Day approaches, each of us ideally takes at least a moment to mull what it means to labor in the United States and why workers’ rights are so important that an entire day is dedicated to giving everyone a holiday. It’s really no wonder that we have a Labor Day — America’s workers created the weekend, the 40-hour workweek and the minimum wage. Labor Day is the ultimate expression of those hard-won gains. At the holiday’s heart is a reflection of significant gains in humanity at work. For many of us, though, Labor Day is mostly about picnics, the close of the beach season and the return to school. It’s cookouts, hot dogs and baseball. In our nation’s capital, one group of workers exemplifies both meanings of the holiday. For all too many employees at the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, this Labor Day will be another day in their struggle to achieve basic workers’ rights. BEHIND BASEBALL When the Washington Nationals play the Florida Marlins on Labor Day, security guards will be making sure that the grounds are safe for families and dignitaries, and parking attendants will be guiding cars to their parking spaces in an orderly fashion. The people who take care of fans will not be enjoying a holiday. But what’s much, much worse is they will not be getting paid what they are owed. When their paychecks show up, the parking attendants and security workers will most likely be underpaid because some D.C. government contractors at RFK have been systematically ignoring federal wage law — without punishment. The people who make the baseball-viewing experience enjoyable and effortless are legally supposed to be paid a “prevailing wage,” in accordance with the McNamara-O’Hara Service Contract Act (SCA), a 1965 federal law. The SCA guarantees the prevailing wage for all employees of federal and District government contractors. The statute was born of the desire to make certain that public money supports the public good. The D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission oversees the events at RFK Stadium and contracts with private companies for a range of services. Under the SCA, contracts for these services must provide for the prevailing wage rate, or they should not be accepted by the government contracting agent. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the minimum hourly pay under the prevailing wage rates in the metropolitan area for a parking attendant is $8.62, and for a security guard it is $11.51. If the workers are not receiving health benefits from their employer — and the RFK workers are not — they must receive an additional $2.87 per hour so that they can buy their own health insurance. But security and parking workers at RFK have reported that they are being paid as little as $7 an hour, far below what they are legally entitled to receive and far below what the contracts between their employers and the Sports and Entertainment Commission specifically mandate. (At the beginning of the season, cleaning workers also reported underpayment, but that problem was apparently fixed in May.) The underpayment of workers at RFK is especially egregious in light of the vocal community concerns about bringing a professional baseball team to the city and building a new stadium. D.C. residents and elected officials wanted to make sure that new development poured dollars not just into the pockets of the developers and the baseball players but into the community itself. One of the key selling points of bringing a team to Washington was to create thousands of good-paying jobs for D.C. residents in need of employment. But even as President George W. Bush was throwing out the opening pitch of the Nationals’ first home game in April, the development promise to the local community was already being broken by the systematic and illegal underpayment of workers. WEAK UMPIRES Through outreach in the community and at RFK, the D.C. Employment Justice Center has compiled data on the wage abuse, and local news stories in Washington City Paper and on WTOP radio have already appeared on the topic. Because the SCA does not provide a private cause of action, the workers will have to take their claims to the Labor Department’s local office in Hyattsville, Md., for action by government officials. The office is not easily accessible by public transportation, and a phone call to lodge a complaint is often not answered for weeks. Under the governing laws and regulations, the Labor Department is supposed to conduct an investigation and, if it finds a violation, bring an action against the contractor. Unfortunately, in past cases, we have found the department to be singularly unresponsive to complaints under the SCA, particularly when the contract is closed and all the money has already been paid out. Even in cases of ongoing violations, the Hyattsville office often seems unable to take effective action (possibly because of too little enforcement staff). In addition, as recently as early July, the Hyattsville office has refused to take and process SCA claims from workers who are represented by counsel, even though workers have no private right of action to enforce the SCA in court and thus require government enforcement actions. ENFORCING THE RULES If the Labor Department is not providing relief, the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission should step up to the plate and investigate the workers’ wage claims. If the commission rightly finds that the workers are being underpaid under the terms of the contract and under the provisions of the SCA, it should withhold payment to the service contractors until they come into compliance. Even pending the results of its investigation, the commission has the power to set aside money otherwise owed to the contractors. Ideally, the commission should certify the fact of the underpayment and then pay wages directly to the underpaid employees from the funds owed the contractors. Thus, it can make certain that the prevailing wage rate is paid for the balance of the contract. In particularly egregious cases, the contractor may be blacklisted from receiving further government contracts. New York recently collected $4.2 million and blacklisted contractors under its state version of the SCA. D.C. workers deserve similar enforcement. Finally, the D.C. Council should pass a local “living wage” law, with real enforcement mechanisms. Under a living-wage law, all workers who labor under contracts or jobs subsidized by government money would be entitled to a wage far higher than the minimum wage, one that would enable them to enjoy a better standard of living than the poverty level. Current legislation before the D.C. Council would set this wage at $10.95 per hour, but a group of worker advocates (including the D.C. Employment Justice Center) are pushing for a higher living wage of $11.80, the same as in Alexandria, Va. Seven dollars an hour, even for full-time work, makes it nearly impossible to pay for basic necessities of housing, food and health care. In our nation’s capital, at the much-heralded beginning of a new Major League Baseball development project, D.C. workers are being paid poverty-level wages for their hard and, in some cases, dangerous work. Shouldn’t the nation’s capital pay workers enough to cover their basic necessities and more? You, too, can mix baseball and workers’ rights this Labor Day. Root, root, root for the home team, but not just the players. Root for all the security guards, parking attendants, cleaners, and all the others whose labor makes the game great. Judith Conti and Kerry O’Brien are co-directors of the D.C. Employment Justice Center, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to secure, protect and promote workplace justice in the D.C. metropolitan area. The center is assisting workers at RFK Stadium with SCA issues.

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