They Keep Congress Fed — But A Shutdown Will Leave Them Broke


They’re so familiar with Capitol Hill that they blend in almost seamlessly. 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.

A catering cart sits in a hallway in the U.S. Capitol near the room where Senate Democrats have their weekly party lunches.

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, 41, a supervisor with a dark-bearded demeanor and an open demeanor said that he has become friends with some senators. He did not name any names. He laughed when asked whether he and his team had ever lobbied senators. He stated that he has professional boundaries which he cannot cross. 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.”

– Paulo Pizarro, catering supervisor

“Our members are pretty much being

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 our members will be the ones to suffer the loss.”

They enjoy their jobs. They have a feeling of security in their jobs. She added that many are on long-term contracts.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, agreed. He said that they should be concerned after the weekly Democratic Lunch on Wednesday. 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.[treated]Rep. Byron Donalds, a Republican from Florida, said he was sorry the workers were in such a situation, but argued it wasn’t the Republicans’ fault. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), right, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), left, have lunch at a Republican policy lunch on Capitol Hill in March 2020.

Contractors were not given back pay in 2019, during the last shutdown. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) has joined Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., in introducing a bill that would change this. Pizarro claimed that he could only make ends meet in 2019 when the government was shut down for 35 consecutive days because he worked a second part-time job at the Newseum, which is now defunct. He also has to pay a mortgage on the home he shares with his mother in Northern Virginia. “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, in their mind, feel like government employees,” she said.