On his busiest days, Oliver Rojas wakes up early, arriving at the Capitol by 6 a.m. to brew coffee before sleepy lawmakers and staffers start their commutes. By midmorning, he’s making the rounds in the kitchen, checking that everything is ready for lunch.
He thinks of his workplace as the most influential place in the world. “I know each senator. Each senator, they know me — they call me by my name,” he said. “But I’m still struggling.”
Rojas began his Hill job more than 14 years ago, after coming to Washington from Bolivia to be close to family. He’s one of about 175 people who keep food and caffeinated beverages flowing to the Senate office buildings and the Capitol Visitor Center. These dining workers come face to face with the country’s decision-makers, trading friendly hellos, but the small talk rarely goes deeper.
Now they’re at a turning point. After unsuccessful drives in the past, a majority of the workers agreed to unionize late last year. Employed by mega-contractor Restaurant Associates instead of directly by the legislative branch, they want things like job security, better pay and more affordable health insurance. And they’re hoping to rally their most prominent customers to the cause.
“I’ve known the senators for so many years,” Rojas said. “But they don’t know what happens, really, with us.”
‘I know my line’
Before the pandemic hit, Rojas worked up to five days a week for Restaurant Associates and made ends meet with a second job. These days, he’s taken a third and worries what the future will hold. The company has warned that layoff notices could be coming as soon as Friday, according to Diana Hussein, a spokeswoman for UNITE HERE Local 23.
While Rojas regularly caters to people whose words can change the world, “I know my line,” he said. When his father-in-law got COVID-19 and died, he was touched when some lawmakers offered sympathy and advice. But there are some topics he felt he couldn’t bring up, like how the boom-or-bust pace of the Capitol falls hardest on dining workers.
So, it was freeing for him to walk through the Senate office buildings earlier this month with a handful of colleagues, dropping off postcards for senators. “My coworkers and I need fair wages, affordable health insurance, a pension, and job security. I am asking for your support in securing these benefits,” the message read.
Restaurant Associates voluntarily recognized the union in November, and Rojas thinks a public show of support from those big-name diners could improve their position at the bargaining table, especially as pandemic relief money dries up.
Thanks to millions of dollars in federal aid, food workers in the Senate have so far avoided the worst-case scenario of mass layoffs. Rojas and others worked in rotation during the pandemic, and they even got paid for weeks they didn't come in — for him, that meant 29 hours at his hourly wage of $22, not enough to cover all his expenses, but more than some of his colleagues.
With that pot of money gone, deeper cuts could now be on the way. And the problems go further back than that. “I’m working in the most powerful building in the world,” said Rojas, who mostly works as a banquet server for events in the Capitol. “And the only thing I’m asking [for] is decent pay that can leave enough for my family.”
‘An uneasy feeling’
Sen. Sherrod Brown said he, for one, is ready to stand with workers. When they last pushed for better conditions in 2015, even walking off the job to make their point, Brown cheered them on and led a boycott of the Senate cafeterias, bringing lunch in a brown bag to pressure Restaurant Associates.
While many workers got a pay bump after that fight in 2015, they deserve more, the Ohio Democrat said.
“Only 18 percent of cafeteria workers have employer-sponsored health insurance and none have an employer-sponsored pension,” he said in an email. “These long-serving cafeteria and catering employees work every bit as hard as anyone else in Congress — often harder.”
One of those workers without health insurance is Chloe Washington, who says she can’t afford it. While she gets an additional stipend of $4.60 an hour to help pay for insurance, she couldn’t find a way to cover the bronze-level plan offered by the company, which in 2021 cost workers $433.82 a month for single coverage.
Before the pandemic, Washington worked five hours each day at the Senate buffet and relied on tips to supplement her hourly wage of $15.30. After COVID-19 precautions shuttered the buffet, she makes less than $300 a week when she’s not called in, an amount Restaurant Associates determined by averaging her hours from a period before the pandemic.
“I have three kids, I have a husband, I have a family, I go to school,” Washington said. “I had to pick up another job.”
Anthony Thomas, a utility worker who does everything from handling food and getting supplies to cleaning machines, also earns $15.30 an hour.
“When the union came to get me I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m for it.’ Because I’m at the bottom of the totem, I make the lowest wage that they offer,” Thomas said. “We’re at this bubble point, and we don’t know if we’re going to get laid off.”
Part of the $2 trillion coronavirus aid package Congress passed in 2020 included $25 million for the Architect of the Capitol, and some of that money went toward keeping dining workers on the payroll while the pandemic turned the building into a ghost town.
In February, the AOC sent a letter to Restaurant Associates explaining the money would soon run out. “Please manage your workforce accordingly,” the letter said, requesting a response by March 10 describing how that would affect staff and operations.
Restaurant Associates declined to comment on future staffing plans, saying it would be “premature.” And officials at the Capitol would not reveal any discussions with the contractor behind the scenes.
The Senate Rules and Administration Committee did not respond to a request for comment. AOC spokeswoman Christine Leonard said: “We’re doing all that we can to mitigate the financial impact of [the] pandemic over the last two years.”
“Looking ahead, AOC will continue to prioritize excellent customer service from treasured staff, along with appetizing dining options as we work continuously to meet the needs of senators and staff and welcome even more visitors back to campus,” Leonard said.
While the Hill has gotten busy again as legislative staffers return to in-person work and the complex slowly reopens to tourists, some dining options — like the cafeteria in the Capitol Visitor Center — remain closed for now.
That uncertainty leaves Thomas with a sense of dread. He’s getting paid 38 hours in his checks, but a layoff is something the father of three can’t afford. “It’s an uneasy feeling,” he said.
Dreading August recess
On-campus eateries have helped lawmakers and staff stave off hunger pangs at odd hours since the 1800s, according to a Congressional Research Service report. Congress operated its own collection of everything from fine dining to carryouts for the last century, and turning a profit was never easy even before the pandemic. Hundreds would clamor for meals during marathon voting days, while everyone would race for the exits during recess weeks.
In 2008, financial concerns prompted the Senate to privatize and contract with Restaurant Associates to run its food service, though not every morsel runs through them. Cups & Company, a Russell Senate Office Building mainstay for caffeine-fueled staffers, remains independently owned, while dining on the House side is run by another contractor, Sodexo.
Owned by the Compass Group, Restaurant Associates has had a rocky relationship with its Hill employees, including the walkouts in 2015, the same year its contract with the legislative branch was last up for renewal. The company retaliated against striking workers, the National Labor Relations Board said, and a separate probe found it owed over $1 million in back pay.
Unlike legislative aides, who eagerly look forward to when their bosses leave town for extended breaks like August recess, dining workers have come to dread quiet times at the Capitol, since it means smaller paychecks or temporary unemployment.
Local 23 represents about 7,000 Washington-area cafeteria workers, including the House dining workers that are employed by Sodexo, and began talks with Restaurant Associates at the end of last year. The two sides found common ground on issues like seniority and grievance and leave policies, said lead organizer Margaret Sharp, but have yet to agree on stickier topics.
About two dozen of the Senate’s workers were hired before Restaurant Associates took over and are not part of the union, she said.
Even if senators don’t spend much time thinking about it, they have a lot of leverage when it comes to demanding more for the workers they see in the halls everyday, Sharp said. They may not have a direct say in how contractors are treated, but they oversee the agencies that decide who runs food service in the Capitol and could turn up the pressure.
“What they choose to do makes a big difference,” Sharp said.