Food fight: Rubio targets House Sodexo contract over voting rights support

Criticism comes after House dining officer was praised for Jan. 6 actions

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks with a reporter in the Senate subway in the Capitol on April 14. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks with a reporter in the Senate subway in the Capitol on April 14. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 19, 2021 at 6:25pm

Sen. Marco Rubio might be out for a bicameral food fight. On Monday, the Florida Republican called on House leaders to reconsider their contract with food services vendor Sodexo because the company signed on to a statement opposing restrictive new voting laws being proposed or enacted in states across the country.

Rubio wrote to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy outlining an array of allegations of labor suppression and racial discrimination against Sodexo and questioning the House’s contract with the international corporation.

Sodexo, a French company, took over the House food services contract in 2015 and operates more than a dozen eateries across the House side of the Capitol and office buildings.

“When it comes to things like dining services, the House of Representatives is able to do business with whichever companies it prefers. I would hope that the House would choose partners that reflect its values,” Rubio wrote. “I would also ask you both to consider whether a relationship between the U.S. Congress and Sodexo, a company that allegedly systematically discriminated against black employees among other shocking abuses, is appropriate.”

The company signed onto a statement that called voting the “most basic and fundamental right,” one it notes has been denied to many throughout the nation’s history. “We all should feel a responsibility to defend the right to vote and to oppose any discriminatory legislation or measures that restrict or prevent any eligible voter from having an equal and fair opportunity to cast a ballot.”

Rubio criticized Sodexo for wading into political waters, and specifically the company’s chief administrative officer Mia Mends for an interview with the Wall Street Journal urging her peers in corporate America to exert their influence to preserve the expanded voting access that was seen during the 2020 election.

“I would call on our business leaders in Texas, who do have enormous influence — even if they choose to leverage it in discrete ways — to help our elected officials understand what’s at risk,” she told the Journal. “The health of our economy depends on the health of the democracy.”

Rubio called the statement and Sodexo’s position “woke posturing.” Earlier this month Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told executives to “stay out of politics,” in remarks in Kentucky.

“In the United States, individuals and corporations are free to speak their minds. Companies like Sodexo are at liberty to insert their uninformed views about voting laws further into our national debate,” Rubio wrote.

Rubio cited what he called an ongoing culture of labor abuses and discrimination at Sodexo, including threatening and firing workers for organizing union activity. But the company has not been sanctioned by the Department of Labor for wage theft violations, as the Senate food contractor Restaurant Associates has in recent years.

House food service workers employed by Sodexo are unionized and represented by Unite Here Local 23. Sodexo’s president of government services David Scanlan told CQ Roll Call in a 2015 interview that the company would recognize the union and assume its contract. Sodexo was also bound by the D.C. Displaced Workers Act, which guarantees employees’ positions for 90 days when a contract provider changes.

The same year that Sodexo took over the House contract, Senate food service workers and workers in the Capitol Visitors’ Center staged multiple walkouts calling for higher wages and improved working conditions. While many mostly Democratic senators joined the workers for rallies and protests, Rubio was not among them.

In 2016, the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division found Restaurant Associates in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act and that it failed to pay required health and welfare benefits. The company was ordered to pay 674 Senate food service workers $1,008,302 in back wages.

Sodexo worker praised after Jan. 6

Sodexo’s executives may have taken a political stand on voting laws, but their corporate messaging for months has been highlighting one member of the House dining team, Fred Johnson. The senior area general manager in the House of Representatives has been celebrated at the company for his leadership and commitment during the violent attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Johnson coordinated the evacuation across the 13 dining outlets in five buildings on the House side of the Capitol campus, telling everyone to evacuate to the Longworth cafeteria. He was in touch with Unite Here Local 23 to update it on the status of its members.

Johnson told the Food Management podcast that his military training helped to prepare him for his role on Jan. 6, making sure the 40 Sodexo employees and eight or nine managers made it to a safe location.

“One thing I remember in the military was as long as you’re calm, everyone else will be. It’s important to be calm in a situation like that,” Johnson told Food Management. “I've had several situations in my military career where I've had to evacuate, you know, 20 or 30 people off an airplane that we emergency landed. So I think that kicked in.”

After Johnson and his team sheltered for about seven hours in Longworth, the House Administrative Office asked if they could make food for the lawmakers, staff and Capitol Police on the scene. He sent his workers home — most had been working since 6 a.m. — and rallied the managers to make pizza, grill items and salad to feed more than 500 people.

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Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.