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Army: Wackenhut owes fire, security workers back pay

June 6th, 2007 12:00 am by Jeff Bobo

KINGSPORT - A spokesman for the Army said Monday that Wackenhut Services owes its fire and security employees at Holston Army Ammunition Plant more than $3 million in back wages.

But that's as far as the Army is willing to go.

Steve Abney, who serves as Army public affairs officer for Joint Munitions Command (JMC), said Monday it's the U.S. Department of Labor's job to enforce the Wackenhut employees' claim for back pay.

A spokesman from the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division said Tuesday it cannot comment on the HAAP/Wackenhut situation because it is an open case.

BAE Systems operates the munitions manufacturing plant at HAAP as a contractor for the Army, and in 1999 BAE Systems subcontracted with Wackenhut to provide fire and security services at the facility.

In July 2005, HAAP's Wackenhut employees filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor claiming that their pay and benefits were too low and in violation of the McNamara-O'Hara Service Contract Act of 1965 (SCA). There was a total of 85 security and fire personnel working at the plant at that time.

The SCA requires federal general contractors and subcontractors performing services on prime contracts in excess of $2,500 to pay service employees no less than the wage rates and fringe benefits found prevailing in the locality.

In seeking a response from the Army regarding the Wackenhut employees' $3 million back pay claim, the Times-News was referred to the JMC at the U.S. Armory in Rock Island, Ill.

Abney told the Times-News Monday that although the SCA doesn't apply to HAAP's supply contracts, it does apply to service contracts such as Wackenhut's fire and security contract.

"That's what the Department of Labor said, and the Department of Labor is the enforcement agency," Abney said. "If somebody is not getting what they deserve, it's the Department of Labor who has to go hammer the company. The money is owed by Wackenhut. Wackenhut should have known all along (the SCA wages applied) based on the original (contract) solicitation."

Abney added: "It took us a long time to get the determination because labor law is just complicated stuff. In December we finally got the answer from the Department of Labor."

Attempts to contact Wackenhut management at HAAP for a response Tuesday were unsuccessful.

The Times-News requested the list of SCA wages for this region for firefighters and security officers from the Department of Labor. The Department of Labor didn't reply with a list.

Wackenhut employees speaking to the Times-News on condition of anonymity alleged that until receiving a pay raise about a month ago, firefighters were paid about $4 per hour under the prevailing wage for the locality but are now at the right level. Security officers have not received a pay raise and claim they are still underpaid.

Employees also told the Times-News that they pay 100 percent of their insurance benefits, which amounts to about $120 per week and roughly $6,200 per year. The complaint alleges that all Wackenhut fire and security workers are owed back pay dating from 1999.

A Wackenhut employee told the Times-News Monday that when an article about their $3 million back pay claim ran in the Times-News on Friday, management threatened them with their jobs.

"They're threatening us - that we're going to lose our jobs in October," the security officer said. "They're making smart aleck comments like, ‘Just keep it up and we'll all be out of work come October over this.' And we're like, ‘This is money that's owed us. This isn't something that can be negotiated. It's federal law.'

"They're just crooked, and I guess when the story made the TV news this weekend and the radio this morning, one of the bosses said, ‘Just keep it up and y'all can work at Wal-Mart come October.'"

Two federal legislators have also taken sides with the Wackenhut employees to get their back pay.

In a letter dated May 4, U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., asked U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao for speedy action on ensuring HAAP's security and fire personnel are properly paid and receive back pay dating from 1999. Miller serves as the chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor.

"Based on the complaint they filed with the (Labor) Department in July 2005, I am told that these protective service workers and their families have been deprived of an estimated $3 million of income, and their community has missed out on the accrued economic development their spending would have generated," Miller stated in the letter to Chao.

Miller added: "I urge you to take adequate measures to enforce immediate compliance for current and future wages and ensure the prompt award of back pay."

U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., has also taken up the cause for Wackenhut employees. He too sent Chao a letter seeking a resolution to the employees' claim. Kennedy serves on the U.S. Senate's Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

"I'm concerned about the length of time these workers have been waiting for a resolution of their claims," Kennedy stated in the letter. "The (Labor) Department's regional wage specialist, John Bates, confirmed in October 2005 that violations of the (Service Contract) Act had indeed taken place at the plant."

Kennedy added: "Vigilant enforcement of these laws is essential for families struggling to make ends meet. In this case, vindication of the workers' rights is also important for our national security. Wackenhut's treatment of its employees could have a debilitating effect on morale and on the quality of security at the Holston Army Ammunition Plant, an essential facility that produces explosives vital to the war effort."

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