Heard on the Hill

Omnibus Shows Concerns About Congressional Cafeterias

Including issues with the quality of the food on the House side

Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro, left, and his brother Julian Castro have a snack with Julian Castro’s daughter Carina in the Cannon House Office Building cafeteria in 2015. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Congress is once again putting its dining service vendors on notice.

On one side of the Capitol, the concerns are about the meals that are being served. On the other side, they are more about protecting the rights of the men and women preparing those meals.

The omnibus spending plan unveiled early Monday tackles federal funding for matters of national and international importance, but it also addresses concerns much closer to home, such as the quality of food in the House cafeterias.

“There is concern with continued food service issues surrounding lack of food variety, consistent quality of service, and management challenges with the food services provider,” appropriators drafting the omnibus spending agreement said in an accompanying report.

Legislative branch provisions specific to either the House or Senate are drafted by the members and staff of the chamber involved, under a long-standing practice.

The current House food service vendor is the catering giant Sodexo, operating large dining halls, along with offering Dunkin’ Donuts and Subway. The spending bill’s report signals a potential interest in more chains.

“It is known that additional cafeteria renovations and reconfigurations are needed in the near future; prior to moving forward with any significant renovations the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) in conjunction with the Architect of the Capitol should explore the feasibility of making available additional branded options to the House community,” the appropriators wrote. “Additionally, we are supportive of the CAO’s recently developed food service quality assurance program.”

Senate dining services, which have continued to be run by Restaurant Associates, have a different set of issues. There, the concerns are less about the quality of the food than about the treatment of the catering service’s employees.

Last year, the Department of Labor found that nearly 700 workers with the Senate’s food services had been underpaid. Restaurant Associates was found to have improperly classified workers in positions where they would make lower wages.

The back pay due exceeded $1 million.

“Concerns continue … regarding findings that the food service provider for the Senate under paid many of its employees by misclassifying their work duties, and that problems with contract compliance could continue,” the report accompanying the omnibus said.

The report directs the Architect of the Capitol to explore any courses of action available under the Senate food services contract to ensure compliance.

The report notes efforts already underway within the AOC’s office to improve the training of both Senate and contract staff on the applicable labor laws, as well as a directive that materials regarding the rights of workers be available in several languages.

In addition, Restaurant Associates is expected to have a human resources contact person on site within the Senate complex.

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