Saturday, July 15, 2006

Veteran cafeteria workers can't find out why Homeland Security had them yanked from their jobs

Two out of work at Federal Building after 20-plus years' service

Veteran cafeteria workers can't find out why Homeland Security had them yanked from their jobs

By Paula Reed Ward / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Judy Miller, who greets each customer in line with friendly conversation, just wants to get back to her spot behind the cash register.

Mary Broughton, who cooks for hundreds of people each day like she would for her own family, misses her work, too.

But for now, the women are barred from their positions in the cafeterias of the federal buildings Downtown because they failed to pass required background checks with the Department of Homeland Security.

Even after seeking help from their union and a local congressman, they still don't know what it is that's keeping them away, and they're becoming increasingly frustrated.

"This not knowing when we can go back to work is ridiculous because they screwed up in Washington," Ms. Miller said.

Ms. Broughton, 58, of Crafton Heights, who said she's never been in trouble, agreed.

"I can't understand it," she said.

The two women were asked to leave the U.S. Courthouse and the William S. Moorhead Federal Building across the street on July 5. Since then, both women have filed for unemployment.

On Tuesday, their employer, Sodexho Inc., which is contracted to run the cafeterias in the two buildings, said the women were on paid administrative leave.

Yesterday, though, the company backtracked from that statement. Instead, according to Stacy Bowman-Hade, the women were given a choice of using up their vacation pay or being laid off.

Both Ms. Miller and Ms. Broughton have filed for unemployment.

Still, Ms. Bowman-Hade insisted, the company is trying to work with them to come up with a solution to the problem.

"We're trying to be as supportive as possible," she said. "We have to take it day by day because we don't know what the outcome's going to be."

In the meantime, Sodexho is trying to find the women temporary positions at other area locations, Ms. Bowman-Hade said, though that has not happened yet.

Company officials were informed last week that both Ms. Miller, who's worked for the company for 20 years, and Ms. Broughton, who has 24 years, were deemed "unsuitable," by Homeland Security to work in the federal buildings.

No reasons were cited at the time, and no answers have been forthcoming.

They assume it's a problem with their paperwork.

"I haven't even been arrested for jaywalking," said Ms. Miller, 52, of the North Side. "I've never even gotten a traffic ticket."

She didn't mind doing the background check a few months ago, she said, because she has nothing to hide. Now, though, she's mad.

"I want to get back to my people," she said.

Ms. Broughton concurred.

"I love it," she said. "I've been cooking for all my life."

She says she's most well-known for her chili and soups, but customers are fond of her veal parmesan and chicken marsala, as well.

"I fix it like I was at home," Ms. Broughton said. "I won't give people anything I wouldn't eat."

Both women have sought help from U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills.

"Our office works as sort of an ombudsman to the federal government," said spokesman Matt Dinkel. "We normally get results pretty quickly."

This time, though, the congressman's office has been foiled in trying to get information.

A liaison with Homeland Security told Rep. Doyle's office only that the women needed to appeal and would give no further information.

"It's one of the most frustrating interactions our office has ever had with a federal agency," Mr. Dinkel said. "It's unlike the response we usually get from other agencies," citing the IRS, Social Security Administration, State Department, and Housing and Urban Development.

After calling an automated information line in Washington dozens of times during the past week and leaving unanswered messages, the women finally learned yesterday that they must submit a written letter to the Department of Homeland Security appealing the "unsuitable" status.

Rep. Doyle's office helped in the preparation of that letter, and it will be faxed today, Mr. Dinkel said. The appeals process typically takes less than 30 days.

Last month, another Sodexho employee was removed from the cafeteria in the federal building, as well, following the background checks. That man, whose name has not been released, chose to file for unemployment and has not returned to work.