After shifts serving food to Capitol Police, senators and a sparse number of staffers, Senate food service workers were told early last week to anticipate widespread layoffs and were quietly advised to register for unemployment insurance.
A deal was eventually struck to keep workers on the job a bit longer, but not before panic and confusion arose among the front-line workers tasked with feeding Congress during the coronavirus pandemic.
Senate workers, employed by contractor Restaurant Associates, spoke to CQ Roll Call throughout the week as they received mixed messages about the future of their jobs preparing food for the Senate community. They spoke on background out of concerns about retaliation for speaking to the media about their fears of layoffs and concerns about accountability.
Many workers got phone calls from Restaurant Associates telling them July 2 would be their last day working in the Senate. Others were told in person when they returned to their lockers at the close of their shifts on July 1 and 2. Managers told employees they should register for unemployment insurance.
None of the Restaurant Associates employees who talked to CQ Roll Call saw any paperwork regarding terminations and said they didn’t know anyone who had official documentation.
One worker with nearly seven years of service in the Senate dining services, both in the Dirksen Cafeteria and Senate Carryout, said he was concerned about the lack of a paper trail over the expected layoffs.
“No paperwork or anything. See you later and go to the unemployment line,” he said, describing how he got the news.
Senate food service employees are accustomed to an ebb and flow of hours and business, along with the chamber’s schedule. But they described the process last week as different from anticipated stretches, like the annual August recess, when hours may be cut or some workers may not get shifts for a few weeks. Some workers do go on unemployment during extended recesses, but they have assurances that when Congress returns to Washington, so will their regular shifts.
“Totally different, this was like them stiffing us,” one worker said. “We know the routine, this was nothing like that. We are prepared for August.”
The Senate’s Restaurant Associates contract is managed by the Architect of the Capitol and talks were underway through the week between the AOC, Restaurant Associates and staff from the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, which has oversight over Senate operations.
Restaurant Associates is a subsidiary of Compass Group, a British company with a U.S. headquarters in New York. The company runs cafeterias and eateries at a number of the Smithsonian museums.
“You’re a British-based billion-dollar company, running the kitchen area in half of D.C. I understand that things are closed, but why can’t they take care of the people that are working and have customers?” one worker asked.
As part of the roughly $2 trillion coronavirus economic aid package that Congress passed in March, the Architect of the Capitol received $25 million, to be used both for purchase and distribution of bulk cleaning supplies, but also to continue food service contract payments. Authorization allowed for payment of contract costs for salaries of Restaurant Associates employees, in the case of furloughs or reduction in contract hours due to facility closures.
When workers had shifts, they were paid by their contractor, Restaurant Associates. For workers whose shifts were affected by closures, including the shuttered Capitol Visitor Center eateries, they were paid with AOC funds.
“AOC has been clear, they were running out of money for this,” Connecticut Sen. Christopher S. Murphy said last week.
The top Democrat on the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee, Murphy said that while he wasn’t directly involved in negotiations, he was tuned into the issue since his panel ensured that the contractor payments were included in the March aid package.
But the authority provided in that bill was on track to expire on July 3, sparking anxiety among workers. The legislation specified 16 weeks as the maximum time frame for the Architect of the Capitol to cover salaries and benefits of the food service contractors.
Roller coaster ride
Workers had already been through a roller coaster of furloughs and calls back to work since the pandemic took hold in the U.S.
“All Senate staff will remain on payroll from March 16, 2020, to March 27, 2020,” Sam Souccar, a spokesman for Restaurant Associates, said back in mid-March when the Capitol closed to visitors and outside appointments. “During this time period, no employee will have to use any accrued personal time, unless they had a previously scheduled and approved request. All full-time employees will be paid a full day’s wage (8 hours).”
Restaurant Associates also operates the Capitol Cafe at the Capitol Visitor Center, which is closed for tours. The company said it intended to keep all CVC staff on payroll from March 16, 2020, to March 27, 2020, Souccar said then.
Souccar, Restaurant Associates and the Architect of the Capitol did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Just days after the relief package with language about AOC contractors was signed into law on March 27, furloughs still came. Food service workers in the Senate confirmed that on March 31, employees in the Dirksen Cafeteria were furloughed. On April 2, managers were called in and told that they too would be furloughed. In both instances, workers received documentation about the change in their employment status. About two weeks later, they were called back to work.
The Architect of the Capitol, Restaurant Associates and Rules Committee staff struck a deal last week to extend authority to keep workers on the payroll through the end of September.
“We worked with the Architect of the Capitol and I think he was able to find some additional funding,” Senate Rules Chairman Roy Blunt told CQ Roll Call.
Workers expressed relief that a deal was reached for an immediate solution to prevent layoffs, but said they weren’t confident that the same thing wouldn’t happen again in the fall, especially if coronavirus cases surge and the current deal expires.
Just like restaurants across the country, eateries within the Capitol have been hit hard. The Capitol Complex remains closed to almost anyone who doesn’t work on Capitol Hill. The spring and summer months usually bring a flood of lobbyists, advocates on fly-in-days, and tour groups who all need to grab a bite. Even while the Senate has been in session, staff have been encouraged to work from home to keep too many people from working in close quarters.
In a statement, Blunt acknowledged the current fix is short-term and more work is to come.
“I encourage the AOC and Restaurant Associates to use this opportunity to continue working toward a long-term solution,” the Missouri Republican said.
Restaurant Associates’ tenure as the Senate food contractor has seen its share of strife.
Pickets and strikes grabbed the attention of senators and staff in 2015 as the Restaurant Associates contract, first granted in 2008, was up for renewal. Workers wanted a $15 per hour wage and were joined on the picket line and in letters and statements by Senate Democrats and staffers.
In 2016, more than 650 Senate cafeteria workers received a total of more than $1 million in back pay after the Labor Department found that they were illegally denied wages they had earned by Restaurant Associates and its subcontractor, Personnel Plus.
The contractor improperly classified workers to pay them for lower-wage positions and required them to work overtime without compensation in violation of federal and local labor laws.
Chris Marquette, Bridget Bowman and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.