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Labor Dept probes whether food court workers were underpaid in federal building

By Amanda Becker

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Labor Department is investigating whether food court vendors in Washington's largest U.S. government building underpaid workers and denied them overtime pay.

Good Jobs Nation, a non-union group representing current and former workers in the Ronald Reagan Building, had urged the Labor Department on Monday to probe whether nine of the food court's 18 employers - including Subway, Quick Pita and Smoothie King - owed as much as $1 million in back wages and damages.

"The U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division currently has an open investigation of Trade Center Management Associates providing services at the Ronald Reagan Building," spokeswoman Sonia Melendez told Reuters. "As a matter of policy, the division cannot discuss details of an ongoing law enforcement effort."

Although the U.S. General Services Administration owns the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, it is managed by Trade Center Management Associates, which in turn licenses individual franchisees.

A Trade Center Management Associates representative referred questions to the GSA. An official there said the agency's contract with Trade Center Management to manage the building's food and retail tenants states that it must comply with applicable laws.

Good Jobs Nation asked the Labor Department to investigate rather than filing a private lawsuit against the vendors because of the building's federal status, said George Faraday, the attorney who prepared Monday's letter.

"This is a government building. It generates money for the government and it should be the government's responsibility to put an end to the situation," Faraday said.

Antonio Vanegas, a former employee of a Quick Pita restaurant, was paid $6.50 to $9 per hour to cook, clean and ring up customers for up to 59 hours a week without overtime pay, the letter to the Labor Department stated.

Vanegas said he has never received pay statements showing his wages and deductions and, over the three years that he worked there, he was always paid in cash, the letter said.

Quick Pita could not immediately be reached for comment.

The Labor Department investigation comes as non-union labor groups are increasingly speaking up for low-wage workers who are not typically represented by traditional labor unions. The Restaurant Opportunities Center United, a New York-based group pushing for better industry working conditions, said that just 1 percent of the country's 10 million workers in the industry are unionized.

The Ronald Reagan Building, opened in 1998, is home to the U.S. Agency for International Development and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, among other agencies.

(Reporting by Amanda Becker; Editing by Richard Chang and Lisa Shumaker)

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