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Half of Tunnel Crew Left AOC

After the entire team signed a settlement agreement June 19, fewer than half of the 10 Architect of the Capitol tunnel shop workers who stepped forward to tell Congress about health and safety violations in Capitol Hill’s aging utility tunnel system are still employed by the agency.

Since the details of the settlement have not been disclosed, it is not clear if the employees’ job status was part of the negotiations, but the team’s supervisor and at least five other workers are no longer AOC employees.

“Acting Architect of the Capitol Stephen T. Ayers and each of the 10 complainants have signed final settlements of the reprisal cases,” AOC spokeswoman Eva Malecki said Tuesday. “While by law the specific terms of the settlement must remain confidential, each settlement resolves the reprisal and other claims to the parties’ mutual satisfaction. The parties’ good faith and hard work made it possible to reach an amicable and final resolution, with the support and assistance of the Office of Compliance.”

The workers and their lawyers did say the only claims that were covered in the settlement, which was mediated by the Office of Compliance, related to the harassment and retaliation they said they experienced at the hands of the AOC in the wake of their appeals to Congress last year.

The OOC filed the first complaint against the AOC on Feb. 28, 2006, citing health and safety violations in the miles of tunnels dating back to 2000. The crew members then filed a retaliation complaint with the Office of Compliance in October 2006, claiming their jobs had been threatened, they had been harassed for seeking independent medical testing and they have been denied hazardous work pay since they sent letters to Congressional leaders asking for help in getting the Architect to fix Occupational Safety and Health Act violations that had been documented in the tunnels.

In May, the AOC and Office of Compliance reached a settlement on the February 2006 complaint, creating a plan to fix the many health and safety hazards in the tunnel system in the next five years.

The June 19 settlement addresses the crew’s claims of retaliation but does not close the door on further action.

“The tunnel workers have settled their claims for retaliation under the Congressional Accountability Act,” their lawyer, David Marshall, said Tuesday. “This leaves them free to move ahead and pursue their goal of obtaining compensation for the physical injuries that some of them have suffered as a result the asbestos in the tunnels. … They will be appealing to Congress to enact some legislation that will compensate them for those injuries.”

Regardless of the confidential settlement, the workers remain free to respond to inquires from Congress about details of the agreement and the health, safety and harassment issues.

“I had that [provision] put in because I thought I’d be speaking at the [Congressional] hearings,” former tunnel shop supervisor John Thayer said Tuesday in reference to a handful of House and Senate subcommittee chairmen who have promised to hold hearings on the tunnels.

For instance, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, promised earlier this year to hold a hearing on why the asbestos and other dangers in the tunnels were not fixed for almost 10 years. Wasserman Schultz has promised that Thayer and his crew will be able to testify at that hearing and that she would see to it that former Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman will appear as well.

“These workers were abused by the system and now their health and possibly lives are in jeopardy,” Wasserman Schultz said Tuesday. “The Legislative Branch Subcommittee will give these workers, whose lives were endangered on the job, an opportunity to publicly air their concerns at a hearing later this month to prevent anything like this from ever happening again.”

Additionally, the settlement does not bar the 10-man team from receiving any compensation through any Congressional act that may be passed in the future.

On Tuesday, Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), who was the first Member to hold hearings on the tunnel issue in the 109th Congress, released a statement praising the AOC’s decision to settle.

“I am pleased that the Architect of the Capitol has settled the tunnel workers’ claims and they can now focus their efforts on the 5 year plan to improve the condition of the tunnels under the Capitol Complex,” Allard said. “The House and Senate Legislative Branch Subcommittees have already committed significant financial resources to this project, and I will continue to closely monitor the AOC’s progress on these important repairs.”

When they filed their complaint the tunnel workers were supported by the Government Accountability Project, a leading whistle-blower protection organization, and have since earned support from several other national groups, including the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, an advocacy group founded by asbestos victims and their families.

Linda Reinstein, executive director and co-founder of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, said Tuesday that “some [of the workers] have new jobs, others have no jobs. Some have medical benefits and some have no medical benefits. … We will remain a voice for the victims and work with Congress to pass a Congressional act that provides each tunnel worker with the benefits they deserve.”

Thayer said Tuesday that “we settled for a small amount for harassment and retaliation but nothing for personal injury. … It has nothing to do with personal injury and I will be working with Congress and the Asbestos Association to hold somebody responsible. We still don’t know what the hell to do with the rest of our lives treatment-wise, and we want someone held responsible.”

After pausing to catch his breath during Tuesday’s interview, Thayer added, “With the heat the way it is and my lungs the way they are, I can’t go out for more than five minutes at a time because I just can’t breathe. This is what my life has become at 42 years old.”

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