‘It’s in God’s hands’: Capitol gridlock and pandemic threaten jobs of low-income Senate cafeteria workers

They grill burgers in the Senate basement. They wait tables in the senators-only dining room. And they fill coffee for lawmakers rushing to their morning committee hearings.

But dozens of cafeteria workers, who make low wages and are an integral part of daily life in the Senate, are now worried about putting food on their own tables.

Sources told CNN that dozens of hourly cafeteria workers in the Senate have been threatened with layoffs by October if Congress fails to pass a funding package necessary to keep the staff employed. One source estimated that up to 80 workers could be let go, a figure the company that employs them — Restaurant Associates — did not deny, contending the warnings of potential layoffs are the result of being forced to close some of its restaurants because of the pandemic.

Many of the workers live paycheck to paycheck and have multiple jobs — and they are now at risk of losing much, if not all of their income, if the stalemate in Congress persists and the company carries through with its threat.

“It’s in God’s hands,” one of the workers, anxious to learn the fate of his job, told CNN. “You really can’t do too much about it but pray and hope they do the right thing, as far as making a decision on furloughing us or laying us off, or if the senators are going to keep us open.”

What’s happening quietly under the noses of senators is emblematic of the problems facing Americans across the country, with restaurants shuttering and businesses closing down — and hourly workers hit the hardest. And with no resolution in Congress providing additional jobless benefits to Americans, and questions about the effectiveness of the new executive actions taken by President Donald Trump, many workers are frightened about paying their rent and feeding their own families.

“Basically, we need better stability,” said one kitchen worker who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “If we lose our job here in this building, who says we’re going to make the same amount of money somewhere else?”

While senators told CNN they believe they will pass funding legislation next month to stave off the layoffs, many workers have been informed they could be let go by October if Congress can’t get a deal to fund the Architect of the Capitol — which has a contract with the private New York firm that runs several restaurants and other food services on the Senate side of the Capitol, in the Senate office buildings and in the Capitol Visitors Center.

Already, a number of employees of Restaurant Associates have been furloughed at various times of the pandemic, as the company has limited the number of staff, reduced the number of hours at its restaurants and closed at least one of them indefinitely.

The company is facing sharp criticism from its employees — and from some senators.

“This vendor we use in the Senate has been a problem to deal with,” Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, ranking Democrat on the subcommittee that oversees funding on Capitol grounds, told CNN. “They often play games. They often try to use threats of layoffs in order to get more money out of the Architect of the Capitol. So I think it might be time to find a vendor that’s not going to use the threats of layoffs as a cajole to try to get more money.”

Murphy said in the interview that he’s “confident” lawmakers will come together to pass a funding bill next month that would prevent the layoffs from happening before October. “I just think that there is a consensus amongst my colleagues here to not let those layoffs happen,” he said.

Restaurant Associates would not comment on the number of employees who could get laid off or have been furloughed when asked about the estimated 60-80 employees who could lose their jobs. In a statement, the company said it advised some of its staff that their jobs could be eliminated because of the “uncertainty” in the months ahead.

“Since the start of the pandemic, dining services at the Capitol Visitor Center and the US Senate have been either completely closed or significantly reduced and there is currently no schedule set for their reopening,” the company said in a statement to CNN when asked about the mass layoffs. “Unfortunately, that means we have many talented employees with no place to work.”

Asked to respond to Murphy’s criticism, Sam Souccar, a company spokesman, said: “We are proud of our 12-year relationship with the Architect of the Capitol,” and reiterated that “we do not want to lay off any employee.”

But one of the workers, concerned he will lose tenure and seniority in the company if laid off, also complained about his employer: “The company needs to value us more. It’s plain and simple.”

Under the historic Covid-19 rescue package Congress approved in March, the Architect of the Capitol was provided $25 million for sanitation services and cleaning supplies and to ensure employees in the Capitol restaurants would continue to get paid. The law provided roughly $3.5 million to Restaurant Associates for all of its restaurants on Capitol grounds.

But as of late July, the Architect of the Capitol had spent $24.8 million of those funds, according to an inspector general’s report released by the House Oversight Committee.

And without another lifeline from Congress, many are nervous about the months ahead.

“They furloughed us before,” said another worker who didn’t want to be quoted by name. “This will be our third time being laid off if they don’t extend or figure it out.”

Restaurants Associates provided what is known as a WARN notification to its affected employees about the expected layoffs on July 30, according to a letter from Architect of the Capitol J. Brett Blanton to Restaurants Associates, which was obtained by CNN. That written notice is required under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, which states that an employer “with 100 or more employees” needs “to provide at least 60 calendar days advance written notice of a plant closing and mass layoff affecting 50 or more employees at a single site of employment,” according to a Department of Labor summary of the law.

Sen. Roy Blunt — a Republican from Missouri who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, which has administrative oversight of the chamber — told CNN in a statement that his committee is working to prevent the layoffs.

“The Restaurant Associates employees are valued by the entire Senate community. The Restaurant Associates contract is managed by the Architect of the Capitol, and the Rules Committee is working with them to find a solution,” Blunt said.

As architect of the Capitol, Blanton plays a role similar to a chief operating officer of a company, running the day-to-administrative functions of the Capitol. In his letter, Blanton said he is trying to preserve the food workers’ jobs. “The stress of the pandemic is felt heaviest on those who face uncertainty regarding their employment status, and we owe it to them to everything we can to ease the burden,” he wrote.

“The AOC is working closely with Congress to continue operations of the services needed to support Congress, including food vendors such as RA,” Blanton said. “While no final determination has been made at this time regarding operations post-September 30, 2020, the commitment to these service employees remains a high-priority for me. Upon Congressional approval, the agency is prepared to act quickly to further modify the existing contracts and extend the benefit.”

Restaurant Associates said it was “grateful” the Architect of the Capitol “has allowed all of the employees on our payroll to continue to receive their paychecks for nearly five months” since the pandemic took hold. But the company said it needed to send the WARN notifications because of the unclear outlook as it heads to the end of the fiscal year on September 30.

“Until our operations are able to resume, we are working collaboratively with the (Architect of the Capitol) to explore options that will extend these benefits to employees,” the company said. “Given the uncertainty that lies ahead, however, we thought it was important to advise some of our employees of the possibility that positions may be eliminated at the end of September.”

In September, Congress will have to pass funding bills to keep the government open by October 1. And in that funding bill, Congress could help avoid the cafeteria workers stay on the payroll by extending adequate funding for the Architect of the Capitol.

The appropriations process is behind schedule, meaning it’s almost certain Congress will have to pass a continuing resolution, a measure that keeps government agencies funded at last year’s levels, something that could help save the workers’ jobs.

“I’m working on this every day,” Murphy said.