In early June, the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission admitted that hundreds of employees working for RFK Stadium contractors were being underpaid; it pledged to immediately address the shortfalls (“Dirty Work,” 6/15). But rather than settle the tab with workers at ballgames and concerts, the commission has chosen to challenge the law that requires the higher wages.

Meanwhile, as the Nationals’ inaugural season limps to a close, RFK’s staff continues to earn far less than the legal minimum.

The underpayments are in violation of the Service Contract Act (SCA), a 1965 federal law guaranteeing the employees of public contractors certain wages and benefits depending on their profession. For the 100-plus Impark attendants and Contemporary Services Corp. (CSC) ushers who work each game, that amounts to $11 to $12 an hour, as well as paid vacation and sick leave.

When the violations were brought to the attention of the commission in June, Sports Commission General Counsel Claude Bailey and spokesperson Tony Robinson promised to fix the problem. “It was news to us, quite honestly,” Bailey said. “We want to get to the bottom of it.” Bailey even sent a reporter copies of the commission’s redrafted contracts, though whether they were ever signed by Impark and CSC is unclear; both companies have declined to discuss their wages.

Statements by the commission indicated that paying the right wage was not just a legal but a moral issue, as well. When pitching baseball to the District, “One of the things the mayor and the [commission] talked about was the economic benefits,” Robinson said. “These jobs are important to the people that have them, and you ought to be paid what you’re supposed to get. I say that personally—as a native Washingtonian, I’m committed to making sure that’s the case.”

But hiking wages was easier said than done. The commission’s contract with Major League Baseball, which owns the Nationals, requires the team to pay a fixed sum for stadium staffing and game-day costs—and not much else. With no profit margin to cushion the new expenses, a source close to the Sports Commission says, D.C. went to the Nationals, asking if the team might be willing to chip in a few hundred thousand dollars. The team, not surprisingly, preferred not to. Asked about the request, a Nationals spokesperson had no comment.

In a bind over how to come up with the money, the Sports Commission decided to reverse course. Instead of pulling together the money itself or passing the hit on to Impark and CSC, the commission challenged the federal Department of Labor over whether RFK was even subject to prevailing wage law at all. On Aug. 15, a government tort lawyer hired by the commission drafted a letter to the Labor Department contending that all but a few stadium jobs were exempt from higher wages on various technical grounds. Last week, the department struck the challenge down on all counts.

“These basic support services are really the responsibility of the owner of the stadium, which is the District of Columbia,” the Department of Labor Enforcement Office’s Timothy Helm wrote in a notice obtained by the Washington City Paper. “[M]ost of the services performed on these six contracts are expressly listed in the [Service Contract Act] Regulations.” The office not only ruled that the employees of Impark and CSC needed to be paid more, it informed the Sports Commission that five additional contracts—concerning trash hauling, medical services, field configuration, janitorial services, and laundry services—were subject to federally set wages as well.

“Accordingly, we again request that all necessary steps be taken as expeditiously as possible to retroactively include in the seven contracts in question, as well as all future such contracts, the SCA labor standards provisions,” Helm concluded. “Please inform us of your actions in this matter as soon as possible.”

In response to the ruling, the Sports Commission can agree to pay the wages, try to make its contractors foot the bill, or appeal the Labor Department’s decision before Oct. 11—to the Labor Department. Bailey says the commission has not yet decided which it intends to do.

Unless the federal agency reverses itself, however, somebody will have to shell out years of mandatory, retroactive pay raises—and get used to paying stadium employees substantially more. The extra labor costs could potentially threaten the Sports Commission ability to book events at the stadium, Bailey worries, because competing nongovernment venues such as the Patriot Center and the Merriweather Post Pavilion could undercut the RFK price schedule.

That’s not an excuse for not paying the back wages, says At-Large D.C. Councilmember David Catania. “A decision has been rendered, and I’d certainly expect them to meet the obligations under the law. The response can’t be that ‘We don’t have enough money,’” he says. “They’re going to have to find it.”

So the commission is now back where it started, and hundreds of stadium employees are still being underpaid by as much as 40 percent. Workers for CSC and Impark say they’ve been told by managers that they’d be fired for talking to reporters, but speaking anonymously, they said they were disappointed by the commission’s failure to pay the proper wage. “It’s been pissing me off all season,” one parking-lot attendant says. “I kind of doubt they’re going to retroact the wages—that’d be too much like right to expect.”

But not every stadium contractor subject to the SCA has been shorting its staff. Knight Facilities Management, a Michigan-based firm that holds the RFK janitorial contract, pays its stadium employees—and those of its subcontractors—in accordance with federal law. “We’re trying to grow our business,” says Knight Human Resources Director Virginia Kuenker. “You don’t do that by being known as a company that doesn’t follow the law.” Back in June, before filing its legal challenge, the commission informed Kuenker’s firm that it would have to pay federally mandated wages. Knight complied, and after receiving evidence that two of its subcontractors were still in payroll arrears, the company had what Kuenker describes as “discussions” with both. The two firms have since ponied up, according to both workers’ accounts and payroll records made available by Knight.

With all janitors working under the firm’s contract now earning the prevailing wage of $12.71 an hour, jobs with Knight are highly coveted by the hundreds of CSC and Impark employees who make $7.50 or less. “They said they didn’t have any openings,” recalls an Impark employee who inquired about a cleaning job when he realized how much more the legally paid workers were earning. “But I don’t see why I should have to change jobs to get the pay I should be getting now.”CP