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‘We don’t know what’s going to happen to us’: Hill service workers brace for missed wages during shutdown

A long lapse in funding could mean hard times for contractors

Library of Congress cafeteria worker Willie Price speaks with CQ Roll Call on Wednesday about the looming federal government shutdown.
Library of Congress cafeteria worker Willie Price speaks with CQ Roll Call on Wednesday about the looming federal government shutdown. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Willie Price likes her job in a Library of Congress cafeteria, and evidently the customers and staff like her too. 

For more than 40 years, Price has worked in the sixth-floor cafeteria of the library’s James Madison Building, doing a little bit of everything. She works the checkout register, pitches in as a barista and cooks when needed. She’d just filled in for a chef Wednesday morning and served up breakfast for a family of visitors. They stopped Price to thank her for the meal. Others stopped Price, too, to catch up or give her a hug. 

“I love being here. I got the love, the hugs. I’ve been here a long time,” Price said during a short break in her shift. 

But with the federal government heading toward a partial shutdown, Price is worried about what comes next. Like more than 700 other cafeteria workers working on the Capitol campus or in federal buildings nearby, Price is a subcontractor working for a handful of food service companies, including Sodexo and IL Creations, that staff the cafes and dining halls that feed lawmakers, staff and visitors. 

Unlike direct federal employees, who are guaranteed back pay even if furloughed during a shutdown, or members of Congress, who get paid throughout a shutdown, there is no guarantee Price and others will be compensated for time missed.

“The government gets their money. But we don’t get any money,” Price said. “I don’t have money in the bank. I live paycheck to paycheck.”

In past shutdowns, Price said she and other workers have tried to line up second jobs. During the COVID-19 pandemic, which left Price jobless for roughly two years, she catered on the side and collected unemployment. She said she’ll again file for unemployment next week if she gets the message not to come to work. But past shutdowns ended before she ever saw an unemployment check.

With no money coming in, Price said she had to choose between “life” bills, such as rent and food, and “personal” bills like credit cards that in a pinch she’s sometimes had to skip. 

“I will sleep in the dark, as long as I have a roof over my head,” Price said. “I’m going to make sure I pay the mortgage, the rent. The lights could be cut off, the water could be cut off. Whatever.”

Price is one of 6,000 D.C.-area workers who belong to a local branch of UNITE HERE, a labor union that represents workers in the U.S. and Canada in the hospitality, gaming, food service and manufacturing industries, as well as others. The roughly 700 D.C.-area workers who would be affected by a shutdown make between $17.50 and $25 an hour, according to a union spokesperson.

“These workers are the ones really unnecessarily caught up in this crossfire right now,” said Marlene Patrick-Cooper, president of UNITE HERE Local 23.

In 2019, Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., introduced legislation that would have provided back pay for low-wage federal contractors affected in the last shutdown, such as janitorial, kitchen and security service workers. That bill did not advance out of committee, and Patrick-Cooper said she’s not aware of any more recent attempts to guarantee pay for contractors.

In addition to lost wages, Patrick-Cooper said missed work could result in lost benefits, like health insurance, since contractors need to work a certain number of hours to qualify for coverage — a scary prospect, especially as flu season approaches.

And, since the last shutdown in 2018 and 2019, inflation has driven living costs increasingly higher. That makes the prospect of a shutdown more anxiety-inducing than ever, even for veteran staffers like Paulo Pizarro, who has worked in Senate catering for 17 years and has survived several shutdowns.

“Right now, everything is more expensive,” said Pizarro, who is a supervisor in the banquet department on the Senate side of the Capitol. “I’ve got a mortgage to pay. We live check to check. So we don’t know what’s going to happen to us.”

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