They’re so familiar on Capitol Hill, they almost blend into the woodwork. In the background at everything from weekly party lunches that generate headlines to low-profile state congressional delegation receptions, members of the U.S. Capitol’s catering staff have perfected the art of being present without being seen.
And if the government shuts down, they’ll be without a paycheck.
“Me and my co-workers, we basically live check by check,” Paulo Pizarro, a 17-year veteran of the Senate-side catering, told HuffPost.
A shutdown, which looks increasingly likely as House Republicans are in a standoff against the White House and most of the Senate over a stopgap spending bill, would send a huge swath of government workers home temporarily.
Some of those will be within the Capitol itself, a sort of self-contained city where the grandeur of being a temple of democracy is only made possible by the behind-the-scenes efforts of an army of cooks, security and maintenance staffers.
But unlike many of the workers in the Capitol, the caterers work for food service contractors. While federal employees are guaranteed to be made whole with back pay once a shutdown ends, the same is not true of government contractors.
“This is going to impact us very badly because we don’t know if we’re going to have a job for two, three weeks, four weeks, a month. We don’t know how long a government shutdown is going to be,” Pizarro said.
Caterers occupy a unique place in the Capitol ecosystem: The intimacy of feeding people means they often see their lawmakers in less-guarded situations and, as in the case of the weekly lunches, on a regular basis.
Now, they watch and wait while the people they’ve served and whose water glasses they’ve refilled decide whether they will be able to pay their bills.
Pizarro, a 41-year-old supervisor with a dark beard and open demeanor, said he’s become friendly with some of the senators, though he didn’t name names. Senators compress as much work as they can into the traditional three-day workweek in Washington before flying back home, so between breakfasts, lunches, dinners and receptions, he said, “I see those senators every day.”
But he laughed when asked if he had lobbied any senators on behalf of himself and his team. He said he had professional boundaries he could not cross.
“I’d like to do it, but like I said, I have red lines,” he said. But he added that some senators have spoken to him and tried to be reassuring.
“They told me everything’s going to be OK, they’re trying to fix it,” Pizarro said. “We’ll see what’s going to happen.”
“This is going to impact us very badly because we don’t know if we’re going to have a job for two, three weeks, four weeks, a month. We don’t know how long a government shutdown is going to be.”
“Our members are pretty much being [treated] like some pawns in the chess game,” said Marlene Patrick-Cooper, president of UNITE HERE Local 23, which represents Capitol and federal agency contract food service workers. “And now our members are going to be the ones who are taking 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 that they do. They feel that they’ve had a sense of job security. That’s why many of them are long-term,” she added.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) agreed. Coming out of the weekly Democratic lunch Wednesday, he said, “They should be worried. A lot of people should be worried because this is a game that extremists in the House are playing.”
With government funding expiring Saturday night, House Republicans have dug in, demanding tougher border security policies and lower spending in exchange for temporarily keeping the government’s lights on. Democrats have shown little interest in negotiating.
Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) said he felt sorry for the workers but argued that the situation was not Republicans’ fault.
“I would say, number one, I’m sorry that they’re in this position,” he said.
“But I will also say massive government overspending also has put them in another position where they’re getting paid now, but they’re falling behind every single day when they go to the supermarket, when they go to the gas station, when they have to pay the light bill,” Donalds said.
Contractors were not given back pay in 2019, during the last shutdown. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) has introduced a bill to change that this time, joined by Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) on the Senate side.
Neither Restaurant Associates nor Sodexo, the contractors that provide catering for the Capitol, returned requests for comment.
In 2019, when the government shut down for 35 days, Pizarro said he was only able to make ends meet because he had a second job — at the now-defunct Newseum. Now he also has a mortgage to pay on a home he lives in with his elderly mother in northern Virginia.
The uncertain nature of a shutdown also would make it difficult to take another job, he said, because he can’t know how long he would be gone from the Capitol. “We don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.
Patrick-Cooper, the union leader, said that if any workers deserve back pay after a shutdown, it’s the ones in the Capitol, who fulfill the most basic, human needs of keeping the government running.
“They, in their mind, feel like they’re government employees,” she said. “They feel like they’re serving our country.”