(Washington, D.C.) – Tomorrow at 11 a.m., ten workers who service the utility tunnels beneath the U.S. Capitol complex will file a whistleblower complaint against their employer, the Architect of the Capitol (AoC). The complaint alleges that the workers were subjected to repeated retaliation and a hostile work environment for exposing dangerous working conditions and environmental hazards to several members of Congress and the media earlier this year. The workers are represented by the Government Accountability Project (GAP) and the law firm of Katz, Marshall & Banks, LLP (KMB).
All clients filing tomorrow are “Tunnel Shop” employees, individuals whose job is to maintain the plumbing systems that provide steam and chilled water to Congress, the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court, and other federal buildings. Frustrated by the lack of response after years of raising their concerns up the chain of command, the workers wrote a letter to three U.S. senators and one representative appealing for help. Not long thereafter, several of the workers began attending Senate Appropriations Committee hearings and speaking to the press. Following that, AoC managers began a campaign of retaliation against the crew, including: harassment for seeking independent medical examinations; denying hazard pay; and actions by AoC managers to discover grounds by which the workers could be fired.
The AoC is responsible for the maintenance and operation of the United States Capitol Complex. Hazardous working conditions have existed in these tunnels for decades. In 2000, the AoC was cited for violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act by the Office of Compliance, which monitors working conditions in the legislative branch. These violations included the creation of an unsafe working environment due to: falling slabs of concrete; the lack of a communications system to broadcast emergency information; and the lack of emergency exits in time of evacuation.
The most atrocious and serious matter facing the workers over the past several years, however, is the continual exposure to asbestos.
“One client, who was 33 at the time of the medical examination, was told by a doctor that he had the lungs of someone over 100 years old,” stated Joanne Royce, GAP General Counsel and co-counsel for the ten workers. “These workers were ignored, suppressed, and clearly retaliated against in violation of the Congressional Accountability Act. Someone must be held responsible.”
Many of the workers have been exposed to levels of asbestos that far exceed the limits set by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration. The Office of Compliance sent a memo to the AoC in 2000 stating “(the AoC) needs to take action to prevent tunnel workers from breathing airborne asbestos.” In December 2005, Office of Compliance investigators found that little had been done to improve the dangerously dilapidated structures and eliminate the risk of airborne contaminants. The Office subsequently filed a complaint against the AoC for not implementing safety recommendations made nearly six years earlier. Some members of the tunnel crew have worked unprotected in these conditions for 20 years.
The Congressional Accountability Act (CAA) provides an administrative remedy, and ultimately a transfer to federal court, for these workers and other employees of the U.S. Congress and its associated agencies. The workers are not covered by the Whistleblower Protection Act, which applies only to executive branch employees.
The workers will also deliver a letter to Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), who has criticized the AoC for neglecting worker safety and has participated in hearings on the issue. The letter asks the Senator and other legislators to ensure that the government pays for the medical tests needed to diagnose asbestos disease and exposure to other environmental toxins in their workplace.
“Their top priority is to get the proper medical exams done by a fully qualified doctor,” said David Marshall, a KMB attorney representing the men. “The Architect of the Capitol has shown deliberate indifference to these workers’ health and safety for years, refusing to pay for the diagnostic tests necessary to determine the extent of their injuries. We’re demanding the government pay for these tests, and we will seek full compensation for the asbestos disease and other injuries these workers have sustained.”
Marshall, Royce, and the ten employees will be outside the Second Street entrance to the Library of Congress’ John Adams building (2nd & Independence), where the Office of Compliance is located. All will be available for comment to the media.