Senators strike deal to keep Capitol cafeteria workers from layoffs

Flags are flown at half-mast at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, March 24, 2022, to honor former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who passed on March 23, 2022.
Anna Rose Layden

Democratic senators announced on Wednesday that a deal has been reached to prevent Senate cafeteria workers from losing their jobs, just days after they said they received notices from their employer that they were being laid off.

The announcement came during a demonstration led by workers, union representatives and a number of lawmakers, ranging from Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to Reps. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), Adriano Espaillat  (D-N.Y.) and others.

Attendees marched with picket signs in the mud roughly a block from the U.S. Capitol, after workers said Restaurant Associates, which employs the Senate dining contract employees, notified them that they were being laid off. 

The Hill has reached out to the company for comment.

Senators and workers said dozens stood to be impacted by the layoffs, which they told The Hill were set to go into effect next week.

A spokesperson for the company told Business Insider that the layoff announcement came after funding it received during the pandemic that helped cover employee wages had “been exhausted and the number of people we have been serving is a small fraction of what it was.”

The Capitol had been closed to the public for roughly two years in response to the pandemic and only recently entered a phased reopening process that officials say will last several months.

According to Roll Call, funding had previously been allocated from the Architect of the Capitol under a sweeping COVID-19 relief package enacted in 2020. 

Workers and representatives with their union, Unite Here Local 23, were pushing for senators to provide more dollars for protections for employees set to be laid off after the previous funding ran out while also fighting for better wages and job security.

“I’m here trying to get our senators to notice us and hopefully approve this budget that we need so we can keep our jobs and not have to file unemployment,” Anthony Thomas, a porter and dishwasher who works in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, said at the demonstration on Wednesday.

“I got four kids … so I’ve just been working here trying to make ends meet and for them to just pull the chair from where you’re sitting and you have your tenure and everything — it’s really crazy,”  Thomas, who earns $15.30 per hour, told The Hill.

Elizabeth Price, a baker who said she was also set to be laid off, told The Hill she was surprised to see senators taking turns rallying attendees with a megaphone in the grass and joining their picket line.

“I was actually surprised that the turnout was this big. I didn’t think it was gonna turn out like this,” Price said. 

Last week, Brown led 17 lawmakers in a letter to Democratic and GOP Senate leadership calling for funding to support the continued employment of Senate cafeteria workers and asking it be attached to a COVID-19 supplemental package that remains in the works in Congress.

Leaders had set sights on swift passage for the bipartisan package, but those efforts hit a roadblock amid Republican opposition stemming from a dispute over an immigration policy enacted under the Trump administration. 

However, under the deal announced Wednesday, a congressional source said an arrangement has been worked out that will allow for additional funding previously allocated to the Architect of the Capitol to be used to help prevent the layoffs.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, said lawmakers will also continue to work with Restaurant Associates as the Capitol reopens “just to make sure that we’re tracking this every single month.”

“Who’s back? What’s happening? How much business do we have so we can keep an actual accountability going here?” Klobuchar continued, before stressing the need for the Capitol to fully reopen “to up the number of people that can get in.”

She also pushed more staff and members to “put their money where their mouth is” and buy from the cafeteria.

“They’ve got to make sure that they’re not going and ordering sushi from three blocks away or 15 blocks away. They’ve got to order stuff right here,” she said to claps and cheers from the audience.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who also spoke at the demonstration, told The Hill that he has confidence that the campus “is going to be backed up and operating at full strength pretty soon.”

“It doesn’t make any sense for these workers to be laid off right now as this place is turning back on,” he said. “But there’s also the issue of them getting a fair collective bargaining agreement.”

Unite Here Local 23 said ahead of the protest this week that workers are fighting for better wages, affordable health care, pensions and job security. According to the union, just 18 percent of workers “are enrolled in health insurance through the company because it’s too expensive at their current wage scale.”

Tags Amy Klobuchar Chris Murphy Sherrod Brown
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