Feinstein Warns Cafeteria Prices Could Rise

Posted May 9, 2008 at 5:47pm

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has issued a warning that prices in Senate eateries will jump 25 percent if several of her Democratic colleagues continue to resist a bill needed to privatize the chamber’s cafeterias.

The legislation would provide benefit protection and job security for the 100 or so employees who cook and dish out meals. If the bill doesn’t pass this week, Feinstein worries that the Senate will miss its chance to bring in Restaurant Associates, a private vendor that already works for the House.

That could mean another year of substantial losses for the Senate-run cafeterias, which Feinstein helps oversee as chairwoman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee. Last year, Senate Restaurants posted a deficit of $1.34 million. This year, that number is expected to top $2 million, said Howard Gantman, Feinstein’s spokesman.

Bringing in a private vendor would mean the end to such losses, Gantman said. The rules of the bidding process only give the Architect of the Capitol until June 7 to take that step, and a contract can’t be signed until the bill passes.

“There’s no turnaround in sight,” Gantman said of the cafeterias’ financial troubles. “We feel it’s important to take this step.”

But Democratic Sens. Edward Kennedy (Mass.), Barbara Mikulski (Md.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Bob Menendez (N.J.) have objected to the bill — and without their support, the legislation won’t get the unanimous consent it needs to pass.

Their dissent came out at a Democratic Caucus lunch last week, prompting a strongly worded letter from Feinstein.

“It is fair to say that I was somewhat dismayed about what happened at today’s caucus lunch,” Feinstein wrote to Senators in a letter obtained by Roll Call.

She went on to explain the consequences of losing more money in the Senate-run cafeterias. Not only will food prices increase, she wrote, but she will also stop granting rule waivers allowing Senators to bring in outside caterers.

The Rules and Administration Committee received more than 85 requests in the past year to circumvent the rule that requires in-house food for catered events, and some came from the same Senators objecting to her bill, she wrote. The problem with this, Gantman said, is that catered events provide a boost to the income of Senate Restaurants.

“Given the dire financial condition of the Senate Restaurants, this loss of income and work for the Senate Restaurant employees will no longer be acceptable and waivers will not be granted,” Feinstein wrote.

Still, Feinstein is working with the objecting Senators to quickly fix the disagreement, Gantman said. The Senators want the bill to include provisions guaranteeing annual cost-of-living increases and union neutrality, among other things, but Feinstein is hoping to include such protections in the contract with Restaurant Associates.

“We did not feel we could go back and put these into the legislation,” Gantman said. “The legislation is a result of negotiations between Republicans and Democrats, and we came to an agreement and we felt we got the best bill we could get.”

In a letter sent to Feinstein, the four Senators outline their argument for changing the bill. Without statutory protection, they write, employees won’t be at ease with the transition.

“Whenever federal employees’ jobs are contracted out to the private sector, workers worry about basic issues like job security, wages, and the ability to unionize,” the Senators say in the letter. “We understand that Restaurant employees remain concerned about these issues in the privatization process. We believe that the best way to address these concerns is to deal with them explicitly in your legislation.”

The letter also opens up the possibility of compromise, offering to discuss how the issues could be addressed in the contract. Gantman said talks are ongoing, and in statements, Mikulski and Kennedy declared their intent to work with Feinstein.

“I have spent my career standing up for federal employees, and I will continue that advocacy as we consider this legislation,” Mikulski said. “We must protect Senate Restaurant workers by making sure they know their rights and their options.”

Feinstein’s bill offers several protections. It ensures workers won’t be fired except for “just cause,” guarantees the same pay and benefits and transfers all accrued sick and leave time to the new contractor.

It also offers a $25,000 buy-out for those employees who want to leave. About half plan to do so, according to Feinstein’s letter.

Such protections could be lost if the bill doesn’t pass within the next few days, Gantman said. There has to be time for the president to sign the bill, he said, and for the AOC to hammer out the contract.

If the June 7 deadline passes, the AOC will have to start the bidding process over again. And next time, they might decide to keep out similar protections rather than wait for Senate approval for such provisions, Feinstein said.

A failure to pass the bill and sign the contract would also mean more budget troubles for the Senate. Already, the Senate is beginning to bail out Senate Restaurants: By July, Feinstein warned, the cafeterias will need $250,000 from the Senate emergency fund to cover payroll.