Why CaBi employees say Alta is underpaying them
This week, New York City opened its new bike sharing system. It uses the same private operator, Alta Bicycle Share, as DC's Capital Bikeshare. The Department of Labor is investigating Alta for not paying a prevailing wage, and 18 current and former employees of Capital Bikeshare say Alta owes them over $100,000 in unpaid wages.
Alta runs Capital Bikeshare under a contract with the District government. That means they have to follow the Service Contract Act, which requires companies who have federal or District contracts to pay their employees federally-determined prevailing wage rates, along with fringe benefits of at least $3.59/hour.
The employees launched a petition this week calling on Alta president Mia Birk to them their back pay and comply with federal law. So far, Alta hasn't contested the employees' claims or offered any public statements other than that they're complying with the investigator's information requests. But privately, Alta has told employees not to speak out about the issue.
The Service Contract Act requires employers to pay their workers wages derived from compensation surveys for dozens of job classifications in their metropolitan area. There are specific wages for desk clerks, truck drivers, and even bicycle repairers.
Federal labor laws also give workers the right to take collective action and speak out about their working conditions, so any retaliation against them for doing so would likely be illegal. Still, it's that much more inspiring that 18 workers are willing to speak out even with pressure from their employer not to do so.
If the employees think Capital Bikeshare is breaking the law, why don't they just sue? They can't. The Service Contract Act does not allow individual employees to defend their rights in court. The DC Department of Transportation and the US Department of Labor are responsible for enforcing the contract and the law respectively.
If Alta is found to have violated the law, it could face significant penalties from DDOT. The Department of Labor could also bar it from future public contracts. That could also affect Alta's contracts in other cities, like Chicago, where federal funds are involved.
The Department of Labor is understaffed and notoriously slow at handling these cases, so workers often need to use public pressure to get employers to follow the law. Hopefully, the DC Department of Transportation and councilmembers who care about workers' rights will help provide the scrutiny needed to resolve things quickly.
Update: Councilmember Mary Cheh, who chairs the DC Council's transportation committee, sent a letter about the issue today to the head of DDOT. It reads:
I am writing to express concern over a recent reports that Capital Bikeshare's operator, Alta Bicycle Share, is not paying its employees a salary consistent with the federal labor laws. On May 6th, The Washington Post published an article, "Capital Bikeshare Possibly Underpaid Workers, ex-Employee Alleges," suggesting that Samuel Swenson, a bicycle repairman, was paid $13.00 an hour when federal labor regulations require that he be paid $14.43 per hour. Now, we have learned that this failure to pay the proper wage may affect not just one employee, but eighteen employees. If true, I find this fact disturbing.
Please advise me what, if anything, your office is doing about this and whether you have been in touch with federal labor officials (the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division) to determine whether they are examining these claims.
Thanks very much,
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