They are so familiar on Capitol Hill that they almost blend into the woodwork. Behind the scenes, members of the U.S. Capitol catering team have perfected the art of being present without being seen, from weekly headline-grabbing party lunches to low-key receptions for U.S. Congressional delegations.
And if the government shuts down, they won’t have a paycheck.
“Me and my colleagues are basically living check to check,” Paulo Pizarro, a 17-year veteran of the Senate catering industry, told HuffPost.
A shutdown, which appears increasingly likely as House Republicans clash with the White House and most of the Senate over a stopgap bill, would send a large portion of government workers home temporarily.
Some of these will be within the Capitol itself, a kind of self-contained city where the grandeur of being a temple of democracy is made possible only by the behind-the-scenes efforts of an army of cooks, security and maintenance personnel.
But unlike many other workers in the Capitol, the caterers work for restaurants. While federal employees are guaranteed to receive back pay after a shutdown ends, this does not apply to federal contractors.
“This is going to have a very negative impact on us because we don’t know if we’re going to have a job for two, three weeks, four weeks or a month. “We don’t know how long a government shutdown will last,” Pizarro said.
Caterers hold a unique place in the Capitol ecosystem: The intimacy of feeding people means they often see their lawmakers in less protected situations and, as in the case of weekly lunches, on a regular basis.
Now they watch and wait as the people they served and whose water glasses they filled decide whether they can pay their bills.
Pizarro, a 41-year-old supervisor with a dark beard and an outspoken demeanor, said he had become friends with some senators but did not name names. Senators are cramming as much work as possible into the traditional three-day work week in Washington before flying home. Between breakfasts, lunches, dinners and receptions, he said, “I see these senators every day.”
But he laughed when asked if he had lobbied senators for himself and his team. He said he had professional boundaries that he was not allowed to cross.
“I would like to do it, but like I said, I have red lines,” he said. However, he added that some senators had spoken to him and tried to calm him down.
“They told me everything will be fine, they are trying to fix the problem,” Pizarro said. “We’ll see what happens.”
“This is going to have a very negative impact on us because we don’t know if we’re going to have a job for two, three weeks, four weeks or a month. We don’t know how long a government shutdown will last.”
– Paulo Pizarro, Catering Manager
“Our members are essentially one entity [treated] “Like a few pawns in a game of chess,” said Marlene Patrick-Cooper, president of UNITE HERE Local 23, which represents contract workers in Capitol food service and federal agencies. “And now it will be our members who will have to take the loss.”
“They are predominantly Black and immigrants, people who came to this country and have been here for many, many years. They love the jobs they do. You feel like you have a secure job. That’s why many of them are long-term,” she added.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) agreed. As he emerged from the Democrats’ weekly luncheon on Wednesday, he said: “You should be worried. A lot of people should be worried because this is a game that extremists are playing in the House of Representatives.”
With federal funding set to expire Saturday evening, House Republicans have weighed in, demanding tougher border security measures and reduced spending in exchange for the government temporarily keeping the lights on. Democrats have shown little interest in negotiations.
Representative Byron Donalds (Republican of Florida) said he felt sorry for the workers but argued that the situation was not the Republicans’ fault.
“I would say, number one, I’m sorry they’re in this position,” he said.
“But I would also like to say that the government’s massive overspending has also put them in a different position where they are now getting paid but are falling behind every day when they go to the supermarket, when they go to the petrol station, when they …” “I have to pay the light bill,” Donalds said.
In 2019, during the last shutdown, contractors were not given back pay. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) introduced an invoice to change that this time, along with Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) on the Senate side.
Neither Restaurant Associates nor Sodexo, the contractors providing catering to the Capitol, responded to requests for comment.
In 2019, when the government shut down for 35 days, Pizarro said this was the case only was able to make ends meet because he had a second job – at the now-defunct Newseum. Now he also has to pay off a mortgage on a home he lives in with his elderly mother in Northern Virginia.
The uncertainty of a shutdown would also make it difficult to get another job, he said, since he couldn’t know how long he would be away from the Capitol. “We don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.
Patrick-Cooper, the union leader, said if any workers deserved back pay after a shutdown, it would be those at the Capitol who met the most basic human needs to keep the government running.
“In their minds, they feel like government employees,” she said. “They feel like they’re serving our country.”