Senators announce funding for Capitol cafeteria workers to avoid layoffs

WASHINGTON — A group of Democratic senators said Wednesday they had secured funding that would prevent more than 80 Senate cafeteria workers from losing their jobs in the next 10 days.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and fellow Democrats told a crowd of workers at a rally that the Architect of the Capitol’s office, which is in charge of managing the contracts under which cafeteria workers are employed, is expected to use $3.75 million from previously appropriated Covid relief funds to prevent layoffs.

“When I see all your faces, I think about everything you’ve been through," Klobuchar told workers picketing outside the Capitol. "You were here on the front line. You were here in the cafeteria. ... It was really hard, and you hung in there for us.”

Klobuchar is chair of the Senate Rules Committee, which oversees the Architect of the Capitol.

Even with Wednesday's announcement, it's not clear whether the funding is a done deal.

Restaurant Associates, the federal contractor that employs the cafeteria workers, said it hadn’t received confirmation that the additional funding needed to avoid layoffs was on its way.

“While we haven’t yet received official word from the Architect of the Capitol we’re very encouraged by this report," the company said in a statement.

After the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. in March 2020, the Capitol was closed to tourists and visitors, with just a limited footprint of lawmakers, staffers and journalists in the otherwise buzzing complex. That led to the temporary closings of several dining halls on the Capitol grounds.

An empty Senate cafeteria. (Frank Thorp V / NBC News)
An empty Senate cafeteria. (Frank Thorp V / NBC News)

The Capitol began reopening to visitors on March 28, but employees of Restaurant Associates said they were informed last week that about half of the 175 workers in Senate cafeterias would lose their jobs April 15 because of funding shortfalls.

“Since the pandemic-related funding has been exhausted and the number of people we have been serving is a small fraction of what it was, we must make these difficult decisions,” a spokesperson for Restaurant Associates said before the announced deal.

Reached for comment, a spokesperson for the Architect of the Capitol, or AOC, said, "The goal is to continue working with Restaurant Associates to make sure that they’re aware of the AOC’s commitment to try and resume operations and to avoid any layoffs, if that’s possible."

After they received the layoff notification plans, workers sought out help from senators. On Monday, cafeteria employees personally lobbied senators, going door to door in the Senate office buildings and pleading with lawmakers.

“Everybody needs this job. Everybody’s having issues at home,” Mariel Nascimemto, a supervisor in the Dirksen Senate Office Building cafeteria, said Wednesday. “We have to deal with this. We need it.”

A Senate cafeteria worker protests near the U.S. Capitol this week. (Frank Thorp V / NBC News)
A Senate cafeteria worker protests near the U.S. Capitol this week. (Frank Thorp V / NBC News)

While they're grateful for what appears to be a temporary solution to avoid layoffs, the workers — members of the UNITE HERE Local 23 union — say they still need a permanent funding fix.

“It’s frustrating, but at the end of the day, we got through it. We were very fortunate that the senators were able to give us the money,” said Anthony Thomas, a Dirksen cafeteria worker. “Hopefully they can appropriate enough money to ... make us feel like they really care about us.”

As major unionization efforts are underway across the country, Senate cafeteria workers aren’t the only employees on Capitol Hill calling for improved working conditions. In recent weeks, House staffers have pushed to unionize amid long hours, relatively low wages and a lack of workplace diversity.

“We shouldn’t be treating any worker as just a disposable cog in a machine," said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who attended Wednesday’s rally. "We value who they are and that they provide for their families.”