Op-ed: Federal contractors need to pay their employees fairly

First Published      Last Updated Oct 03 2014 02:37 pm

President Obama took action this summer to crack down on federal contractors with long records of violating workplace laws and to ensure they clean up their acts before receiving new contracts. The executive order will have little impact on the majority of contractors, who respect their workers and obey workplace laws. But for workers like me that have been shortchanged by our employers, it will make a huge difference.

I previously worked at the Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility in Utah, which was used by the Army to destroy chemical weapons. The work was dangerous — carrying a gas mask at all times was mandatory — and required me to put in long hours, but I was proud to do it because it was important to the safety of our nation. I worked at the facility for 16 years, starting as a janitor and progressing to control room operator.

My shifts were more than 12 hours long, but I put in up to an extra 1.5 hours unpaid every day that I worked. Due to the unpredictable and dangerous nature of the work, I was required to be on call in case of emergency over my unpaid lunch breaks. Every day I came in early to don safety gear, and at the end of each day, I stayed late to shower, remove the gear and change clothes — time that was also uncompensated.

Federal law requires companies to pay workers for this time. But my employers, Battelle Memorial Institute and EG&G, never compensated me and my co-workers for this time.

Altogether, I estimate that my employers did not compensate me for 15 to 20 hours of work every month — or about half a week's full-time pay.

My co-workers and I were particularly upset because we knew that the government was paying our employers for this time, but our employers were not paying us.

After years of frustration, I joined with about 900 of my co-workers to sue Battelle and EG&G. Eventually, both companies settled. While admitting no wrongdoing, they agreed to pay millions in back wages.

Despite these problems, these companies continue to receive contracts worth billions of dollars from the federal government.

I was able to personally thank President Obama when he took action to make sure that companies show that they will respect workplace laws before they are able to receive new contracts. His action will help millions of workers like me who are employed by federal contractors.

Jason Sweat lives in Grantsville.