"No food, no drinks," instructed Capitol Police officers posted outside the doors of the Capitol Visitor Center as tourists approached the complex on a recent muggy day.
A blonde woman sporting a ponytail and backpack drained her 8-ounce plastic bottle and held it up to show the cops it was empty. She was waved toward the doors.
While visitors are allowed to carry water bottles, and can fill them up once they are inside, the guides who spend eight hours a day walking them through the Capitol and talking about Congress complain that their access to water has been severely limited by CVC management. CVC officials told CQ Roll Call that standard operating procedure related to drinking water at employee posts has not changed. Tom Fontana, director of marketing and communications for the CVC, said the policy is reviewed on an annual basis, and noted in his email there have been "no changes to our guidelines."
However, union leaders say the way the bosses have recently tightened interpretation and enforcement of the policy has pushed it to the point that drinking water while on duty has effectively been outlawed.
Water became an issue after the anthrax attacks on the Capitol in 2001, which radically changed the public's access to the complex. Visitors were banned from bringing food or water into the building, because it was determined containers could be used to smuggle the substance into the Capitol. But employees of the Capitol Guide Service were still allowed to drink clear liquids in front of the visitors they escorted.
When the CVC opened in 2008, and the Capitol Guide Service became part of the Office of Visitor Services, the moratorium on tourists carrying food and beverages remained in place. Conflict emerged when management chose not to renew a contract with Deer Park for bottled water, according to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 26, which represents guides, visitor assistants and gift shop workers.
Clashes about access to water throughout the day — particularly for the visitor assistants who are stationed outside in the elements — was one of the issues that provoked the vote to unionize in 2010.
"Upper management specifically told us we were not allowed to take water outside before June 2010 and we would be written up if so, if we were spotted," union president Megan Burger told a panel of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in September 2010.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., called the policy "draconian."
Two weeks later, Architect of the Capitol Stephen T. Ayers clarified that the policy allowed CVC employees to drink discreetly.
"To maintain an appropriate level of decorum for a customer service role, employees working inside the CVC or giving tours in the Capitol are expected to refrain from drinking in front of visitors within the public spaces to the extent they can," Ayers wrote. Under the guidelines, employees are expected to radio their supervisors if they need to step away to refill their water bottle.
On Wednesday, a CVC tour guide sipped water near the racks of headsets, out of view of tour groups. Another employee who was leading a group of visitors on to an elevator carried a clear plastic bottle under her elbow.
Water is strictly prohibited in Exhibition Hall, the gallery where original copies of treasured documents from the National Archives and the Library of Congress on are display.
For CVC employees, the ban extends to the information desks on the east and west sides of Emancipation Hall, where up to 10 employees are stationed in front of computer monitors. No cups, bottles or other liquid containers were visible. Meanwhile, House and Senate employees at each chamber's respective appointment desks had full access to beverages and, in one case, food.
"The number of physical places that water bottles are permitted has been severely limited," the union said in a statement to CQ Roll Call. "Additionally, the very carrying of water between posts is now extremely discouraged. Employees are disciplined for having water in 'forbidden areas,' even in sealed containers."
The two 15-minute breaks and 30-minute lunch period are not adequate to meet the daily water intake needs of a physically demanding job, according to the union. It says enforcement conflicts with the AOC's stated policy that its employees have access to water.
In light of the fact that visitors are now allowed to roam the Capitol with water bottles, union leaders are asking why employees are being disciplined for drinking and carrying water containers.
Fontana said personnel actions are kept strictly confidential to respect employees' privacy.