House of Representatives cafeteria workers denounce working conditions

House of Representatives cafeteria workers say their working conditions have become untenable, leading to unsanitary conditions in the kitchens that serve Congress.

For months, workers in the House of Representatives’ multiple cafeterias have been denouncing the working conditions imposed by Sodexo, the cafeteria services contractor, but their pleas have fallen mostly on deaf ears.

The Hill spoke to four workers from three different Sodexo-operated cafeterias in the Capitol complex, all of whom said the company’s labor practices forced workers to forgo full sanitization of kitchens.

“There have been cutbacks. There were four people cleaning in there, now there’s only one person,” said a worker who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.

“There are trash cans with maggots, there are rats, it’s dirty, and we have videos and photos,” added the worker.

The workers said conditions for longtime cafeteria workers have deteriorated since Sodexo took over operations in 2015, but things worsened during the pandemic.

The workers reached out to Sodexo, House management and their union, Unite Here! Local 23, but to no avail — one shop steward said he hadn’t seen a union representative in two years.

Unite Here! Local 23 did not respond to a request for comment on this story. A Sodexo spokesperson told The Hill the company is in constant contact with union representatives.

“We welcome our workers speaking with their union reps at any time. We have hundreds of [collective bargaining agreements] with unions across the country and work well with our colleagues. We are frequently in contact with our union colleagues and our clients in the House, typically daily,” said a Sodexo spokesperson in an email to The Hill.

In November, the workers contacted Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), who passed their concerns to House and union leaders.

“We have spoken to the House majority here about this and they’re concerned,” Espaillat told The Hill.

“And we’ve spoken to the union. The union came to us also and they’re concerned,” he added.

But workers are beginning to grow impatient, especially as the Capitol repopulates after the pandemic and cafeteria lines grow longer.

“I think they feel that they are invisible, that people go and eat there and they serve them but they don’t see them,” said Espaillat.

“And so I want to make sure that their voices are heard, and that the practices that are being played by Sodexo, who traditionally doesn’t have a great reputation to say the least, that the practices that they are adhering to stop,” he added.

The underlying complaint voiced by workers was a failure to provide enough man-hours to fully open, manage, cook in, clean and dismount kitchens throughout the complex.

The short staffing takes several forms, according to workers, from assigning less than 40-hour weeks, presumably to save on benefits, to calling in fewer unionized workers to fill work slots and sometimes assigning Sodexo managers to assist in cooking, serving and manning registers.

“Sodexo has reduced some 40-hours per week schedules to 37-hours per week schedule. This is solely based on the House calendar for the 117 Congress days in session; the current operating status as provided by the House; continued closure of some cafeteria units, and brand offerings; Sodexo business needs; and the desire to provide as many hours to as many employees as possible,” said the Sodexo spokesperson.

“Additionally, Sodexo has a safety-first culture, where the health and safety of our employees, clients, and guests is our utmost priority,” added the spokesperson.

But for individual workers, the short staffing can lead to long hours with no bathroom breaks and potentially dangerous multitasking of cooking, cleaning and register duties.

One worker said she regularly has 20 minutes to dismount a kitchen, since the cafeteria closes 30 minutes before the end of her shift and it’s common for the last few customers to come in at closing time.

With janitorial staff stretched thin, it’s up to her to pick up after a long shift, forcing her to prioritize and make difficult choices before the clock runs out.

“I’m also not going to work for free,” she said.

The four workers who spoke to The Hill, who together have around 70 years of experience working Capitol Hill cafeterias, all said the company managers lack basic cooking, serving and cleanliness skills necessary to provide sanitary food service.

Still, the workers said they try to keep food preparation and serving areas clean, even as other parts of the kitchens fall into disrepair.

The workers said they’re “very strict” on food temperatures and cleanliness, for instance.

“We try to do the best we can for customers,” said one worker.

“I’m not going to cook something gone bad,” said another.

But despite the deteriorating conditions, few House officials paid attention to the workers’ complaints.

“The buck just kept getting passed,” said one worker. “[We had] basically the same grievances all the time.”

Last week, the Senate reached a deal with the operator of its cafeterias, Restaurant Associates, to prevent layoffs after workers walked out to protest outside the Capitol.

The Senate workers were joined by some House-side workers, who took the opportunity to have in-person contact with their union representatives at the protest.

Still, the House’s cafeterias remain short-staffed and workers fear the conditions are part of a long-term plan to privatize and lease out cafeteria spaces to nonunion employers.

The workers who spoke to The Hill said they are privileged to work in a landmark like the Capitol but could see themselves taking their skills elsewhere.

“I’m not afraid, because I’m a professional who can work anywhere,” said one worker.

And other factors have contributed to a difficult work environment.

“I still feel proud to work on Capitol Hill, but you know, it’s more of a fear thing now since that Jan. 6 thing,” said one worker.

The workers added they feel “impotent and frustrated” after months of unheard pleas for workplace improvements.

“I’m going to put up a last fight to complain and raise my voice. Ultimately, I think, if they give us the boot? Well anyway, this just doesn’t work anymore,” said a worker.

Updated at 2:12 p.m.

Tags Adriano Espaillat Adriano Espaillat

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