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Within the Capitol, Senate Restaurant Workers Struggle

Eighty-one Senate restaurant workers had their jobs saved … for now.

Win McNamee/Getty
Senate cafeteria workers and union members demonstrated outside Senate office buildings Wednesday.

The U.S. Capitol is not simply the seat of the nation’s legislature, a symbol of democracy where laws are forged and politics performed. It is also a sprawling and active workplace comprised not only of legislators, their staffs, and the reporters who cover them, but also the police officers, floor staff, maintenance workers, and cafeteria employees who largely anonymously undergird the whole operation.

Senate restaurant employees work difficult hours even in normal times. When senators have late votes, cafeteria workers also stay into the evening to take care of them. In the past two years, Senate dining workers have faced a pandemic that threatened their safety and their livelihoods. They have worked through an insurrection, providing freshly prepared food even to senators huddling in an “undisclosed location” while rioters desecrated the Capitol.

Senate restaurant workers were among those honored by Congress in a January resolution recognizing the Capitol personnel for their service during and after the insurrection. But 81 of those workers nearly lost their jobs when they were told that there was not enough money to keep them employed.

Restaurant Associates, the private contractor that employs Senate restaurant workers, recently announced that dozens of employees would be laid off effective April 15—not only the traditional day taxes are due, but also two days before Easter this year. “Unfortunately, since the pandemic-related funding has been exhausted and the number of people we have been serving is a small fraction of what it was, we must make these difficult decisions,” a spokesperson for Restaurant Associates told The New Republic in a statement on Tuesday.

Several Democratic senators visited the office of the Architect of the Capitol on Wednesday to advocate that that office find money to cover the shortfall from its existing funds. The architect’s office oversees all Capitol restaurants, but Restaurant Associates manages all day-to-day operations, including wages and benefits. The legislators reported success, arranging for $3.75 million already appropriated to the office to be dedicated to keeping the 81 workers on staff. “Restaurant Associates cannot access the money except by keeping people on staff,” Senator Elizabeth Warren told reporters after the meeting.

There are 11 Senate restaurants, although some have closed due to the pandemic, and around 175 employees working in the cafeterias and cafes in the Senate office buildings and Capitol Visitor Center.

“You were the heroes during the pandemic, and now it’s time for us to step up on your behalf,” said Warren, appearing at a picketing event organized by the Senate restaurant workers’ union, UNITE HERE Local 23. “And that means the money’s been found, nobody needs to be laid off, we are in this together for every worker.”

The win is only temporary, however: The money will last for roughly five months, according to Senator Cory Booker. “We’re not out of the crisis, in my opinion,” said Booker, who joined the workers picketing on Wednesday. “We avoided a Good Friday disaster, a cruel Good Friday, but I think we’ve got to do a lot more to secure dignity for the workers that work right in our own buildings.” He added that the Restaurant Associates contract should be reexamined. Senator Amy Klobuchar, the chair of the Senate rules committee, told reporters that the committee is looking into changing the structure of the contract with Restaurant Associates.

Capitol restaurants have a history of bleeding money, in large part because their profits are dependent on the congressional schedule. Business ticks up when Congress is in session but can slow significantly during recess, when lawmakers return to their home states. The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated those problems: Several Capitol-based restaurants closed as fewer people worked in the building in person. The coronavirus relief package passed in March 2020 allowed Senate restaurant workers to dodge mass layoffs during the early months of the pandemic, but it did not end the problems.

“Let’s make the point that for two years, not a single person lost a paycheck, and then they were often not showing up for work, because there was no work for them to do,”  Senator Roy Blunt, the top Republican on the rules committee—which oversees the Architect of the Capitol—said on Tuesday.

Before the immediate situation was resolved, Restaurant Associates told The New Republic that it was trying to find the endangered workers other jobs with the company. But a Senate cafeteria worker who would have been laid off pointed out that Senate restaurant employees receive an additional $4.60 per hour to help pay for insurance, although workers still often find the insurance too expensive to afford. Other locations lack this benefit, so moving would essentially be taking a pay cut.

“Who in their right mind is going to take a $5 cut, at this day and age where groceries [are] expensive, gas is expensive, you know?” the worker, whose name is being withheld to protect their anonymity, told The New Republic hours before the agreement forestalled layoffs. “To me, that’s an insult. That’s so disrespectful.”

The worker also pointed out that while Restaurant Associates was citing a decrease in customers to justify laying off workers, the Hill is still in the process of fully reopening. The full Capitol complex, which includes the iconic building and grounds as well as surrounding House and Senate office buildings, is not scheduled to fully reopen until September. “Everybody’s been going back to normal,” the employee said. “They’re going back to work. Restaurants are open, schools.… People are getting back to work, but we’re getting laid off.”

This argument could gain traction among Republican senators who are pushing for a faster reopening. “The plan to slowly open the buildings over the next six months will not restore business to normal levels, and as a result, dozens of restaurant employees will unfortunately be laid off this month,” Republican Senator Mike Braun wrote in a letter on Tuesday to Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a copy of which was obtained by The New Republic.

Senate restaurants were privatized in 2008 after decades of being managed by the Architect of the Capitol. The restaurants had been operated by a private vendor between 1947 and 1961, but according to a 2016 report by the Congressional Research Service, control was transferred back to the Capitol once members of the rules committee decided that “this system did not incentivize the contractor to operate the restaurants efficiently,” and that “if the Senate operated its own restaurants, it could save the management fee and perhaps operate them in a way that was more financially successful.”

But the financial losses persisted, and the Senate engaged Restaurant Associates in 2008, renewing the agreement in 2015. The relationship with Restaurant Associates has been rocky. In 2015, some restaurant workers participated in strikes calling for higher wages, and a review found that Restaurant Associates retaliated against workers. Many workers received a pay increase as part of the contract renewal in 2015. Separately, in 2016, the Labor Department found that the company and its subcontractor owed more than $1 million in back wages to hundreds of employees.

After several unsuccessful union drives, a majority of restaurant workers agreed to unionize last year, and Restaurant Associates voluntarily recognized the union in November. On Wednesday, UNITE HERE Local 23 announced that it had reached a tentative agreement with Restaurant Associates to increase wages for Senate dining workers, provide a pension, and offer health insurance for $30 per month. “We need a good union contract, health benefits, and other protections for workers so that never again can you wake up one day with the message that you’re no longer able to have a job,” Senator Chris Van Hollen said at the union event on Wednesday.

But the funding solution reached Wednesday is a stopgap, leaving the 81 employees still facing the anxiety of potentially losing a job in a few months. Mass layoffs have now been averted twice since the beginning of the pandemic, but the workers who serve senators every day need a permanent answer.

“I love working at the Senate,” the Senate restaurant worker who asked to stay anonymous said. “But it’s not the government we work for, it’s a private company.”