WASHINGTON, D.C. — Cafeteria workers went door-to-door in the Senate office buildings on Monday, pleading with staffers and senators to save their jobs.
On Friday, workers at the Dirksen Café were told by management that there would be mass layoffs on April 15, Good Friday. The workers tell Latino Rebels that 81 employees of Restaurant Associates, the federal contractor that runs the Senate cafeterias, are on the chopping block.
“That’s bullshit,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) when confronted by the workers on Monday. Sen. Tester promised to look into the matter right away, a sentiment echoed by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) when confronted by the cafeteria workers a short while later.
The most reactive senator the workers confronted, Cory Booker (D-NJ), immediately got his senior staff on speakerphone to schedule a follow-up meeting for Tuesday afternoon, causing tears of joy to flow freely down the workers’ faces.
“Booker is my guy,” said one smiling worker, who recalled fondly how the junior senator from New Jersey has always been kind to her and her colleagues in the Senate cafeteria.
The cafeteria workers then visited the offices of Sens. Roger Wicker (R-MS), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Tim Scott (R-SC), Martin Heinrich (D-MN), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), James Lankford (R-OK), and Joe Manchin (D-WV).
Over Saturday, 18 Senate Democrats sent a letter to Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), looking to attach funding for the cafeteria workers to a COVID relief bill that has so far failed to pass.
“After facing down a violent insurrection on Capitol grounds and continuing to serve through more than two years of a pandemic, layoffs should not be on the table,” read the letter signed by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and others. “In fact, the United States Senate expressly called for the opposite: workers should be rewarded for their service to this institution, the Capitol complex, and to the people who visit us.”
NEW: Sen. @SenSherrodBrown calls for including funding in the COVID supplemental package to pay “all current Senate dining contract employees.”
The letter is signed by 18 senators.
— Chris Cioffi (@ReporterCioffi) April 2, 2022
Behind the scenes, senators tell Latino Rebels that a bipartisan effort is quietly underway to save the jobs of the frontline cafeteria workers, who clocked in every day during the pandemic, including during the deadly insurrection on January 6th, to serve meals and coffee to aides, support staff, and the lawmakers themselves.
“During the insurrection, we were here in the cafeteria,” recalled a cafeteria worker who received her layoff notice on Friday. “When the soldiers came to protect the Capitol during the inauguration, there was a line every day all the way down the hall to eat our food.”
During the insurrection, another worker recalled being put on lockdown in the cafeteria and warned by Capitol Police not to leave the facility because there were rioters in the building.
“We were terrified,” she said. “Then we had to work until nine o’clock at night making sandwiches for the senators.”
The great irony of the layoff announcement Friday is that it came at the end of the first week since before the pandemic that the Capitol was open to outside visitors.
“We have 10 times more customers right now,” said a cafeteria worker who was notified of her imminent layoff. “We used to have three people working the salad bar. Now supervisors are being asked to do it. That’s not their job. Their job is to supervise us.”
UNITE HERE Local 23, the hospitality workers union that has represented the cafeteria workers at the collective bargaining table with Restaurant Associates since November, is calling on senators to join the workers on a picket line Wednesday afternoon.
“Workers at the Senate cafeteria proudly serve U.S. Senators and staffers every day at the Capitol,” said the union in a press release. “They are fighting for a union contract that will offer fair wages, affordable health insurance, a pension, and job security—the latter of which has become more urgent than ever. Currently, only 18% of workers are enrolled in health insurance through the company because it’s too expensive at their current wage scale.”
Meanwhile, the vulnerable workers aren’t waiting for —or counting on— the union to save their jobs.
“We have 48 hours,” said a cafeteria worker going door-to-door in the Senate Hart Building on Wednesday. “Next week is recess. The senators will be gone. Thursday they will fly out and no one will be here on Friday when they are not in session. We have only today and tomorrow to save our jobs.”
Pablo Manríquez is the Washington correspondent for Latino Rebels. Twitter: @PabloReports