The American Dream, detained

My name is Antonio, and I came to this country from Guatemala in search of a better life for myself and my family. I left my home to make one here because I believed that if you work hard in America, you can make something of yourself.

My reality in this country has been dramatically different from the promise that brought me here. For the last three years, I worked for a food-service contractor in the Ronald Reagan Building, the largest federal office building in the country. While I serve lunch to workers who make good government salaries, I barely make enough to feed myself.

For two years, I made $6.50 an hour — a far cry from the federal minimum wage of $7.25 and an even farther cry from D.C.’s minimum wage of $8.25. That’s not enough to afford even basics like rent, clothes and food. Those aren’t just low wages; those are criminally low wages. My employer was effectively stealing from me by paying below the minimum. And it wasn’t just an issue of wages. I also was working up to 72 hours a week and receiving no overtime pay, benefits or paid sick leave. That’s also illegal.

I knew this was a country of laws, but it increasingly seemed like the laws designed to protect workers didn’t apply on federal property. I felt like I had no options. There was nothing I could do.

But then I started talking to my co-workers and realized they were facing the same treatment. That’s when we learned that laws protecting workers were supposed to apply to us, and we decided to join with workers in other federal buildings. We launched Good Jobs Nation, a campaign asking President Obama to take executive action to improve the conditions of workers under federal contracts, loans and leases in federal buildings across the country.

To draw attention to our low pay and poor working conditions, Reagan workers joined hundreds of others low-wage contract workers in Washington, D.C., and went on strike last month. I felt empowered standing strong with my co-workers and other workers I had never met before. We were no longer going to accept less than a living wage. We were going to stand up for our rights. The day of the strike, I also had the opportunity to testify in front of Congress and tell them that government contractors were breaking the law.

Within days of speaking out, the government retaliated against me. When I showed my ID — the same ID I used for two years — to enter the Ronald Reagan Building, the Federal Protective Service accused me of using a false ID and, to my surprise, they turned me over to immigration enforcement officers, who detained me for four days.

I am shocked and saddened that after I exposed wage theft and abusive labor practices in government contracting, the only response from the federal government has been to place me in deportation proceedings. Instead of working with us to end the criminal behavior and protect workers, they are instead punishing me for speaking out. So I have joined other workers in filing a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor against companies like the one I work for to hold them accountable for stealing our wages and breaking the law.

Ironically, this week marks the 75th anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which guarantees minimum wages and overtime pay for all workers. There is even an event at the White House to celebrate the anniversary. It doesn’t seem right that the people who run our federal government are celebrating protections that people like me who work for them don’t enjoy.

I didn’t come to this country to be a millionaire. I knew I would need to work hard, but I never thought I would be paid criminally low wages, especially while working in a federal building. I’m not just fighting for me, my family and my co-workers; I’m fighting to preserve the American Dream — the promise of this country.

Antonio Vanegas Pascual works at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C., and is a member of Good Jobs Nation.

MCT Information Services

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