While plenty of furloughed federal workers are packing bars during the shutdown, flashing government IDs to snag deals on beers and tacos, another segment of the local workforce has found itself out of a job without the hope of receiving back pay, or even the dignity of being “furloughed.” For the workers who staff independently operated eateries in federal buildings, the shutdown means no work, no pay, and little recourse.
Alexis Vesquez, a round-faced recent high school grad, showed up on the Hill this morning in solidarity with the half dozen workers’ groups assembled outside the U.S. Capitol. He found out about the shutdown on his way to work at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum’s McDonald’s Tuesday morning, when a friend texted him asking if the museum was even open. Vesquez called his manager and learned he would not be working that day.
“That just happened out of nowhere,” he says. Vesquez had started full-time at the McDonald’s a month ago, working the grill and fries station, but, as one of the only workers fluent in both English and Spanish, jumped to counter service quickly. Though he works for minimum wage in a nonstop, hectic environment, Vesquez has found things to like about the job.
“Working with the customers,” Vesquez says. “Helping them out. I liked having good communication with the customers, being able to talk to them.” What he liked best, though, were the steady hours.
Vesquez’s hours were trimmed as tourism high season trickled to a close, but he was able to pick up some work at a Pizza Hut on Georgia Avenue NW. It wasn’t really enough to fulfill his financial responsibilities, which included supporting his unemployed father and teenage sister and paying the bills at their Fort Totten home. Now with zero hours at McDonald’s, Vesquez is strained further.
“The money just goes by so fast,” says the 18-year-old, who showed up for the rally in a student-like polo shirt, khakis, and sneakers ensemble. “Especially in D.C. Especially working for minimum wage.”
Vesquez has some hope of being compensated by McDonald’s for some of his lost wages. After being given a phone number that bounced to an automated messaging system on Tuesday, he was told that he would be paid for the hours he would have worked on Tuesday. “I haven’t seen it,” he says of that pay. “That was something that was just told. I don’t know if it’s going to happen.” He also has no idea if he’ll be paid for the other days he would have worked during the shutdown. A spokesperson for McDonald’s did not return a request for comment. Update, 3:11 p.m.: A McDonald’s spokesperson emails the following: “At this time, we are continuing to pay all of our employees and will continue to monitor the situation. We look forward to opening our restaurant doors and resuming operations with our employees as soon as possible once the shutdown ends.” 3:48 p.m.: In another email, a McDonald’s spokesperson further clarifies: “We are currently reaching out to all of the employees to let them know that at this time, we are continuing to pay them for the hours they were scheduled to work and where they can pick up their paychecks.”
Maria Velasco has no such promise from her employer. She says she was suspended from her job at the Subway inside the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center—although the food court there is still open, business has slowed dramatically, and Velasco and another colleague were cut loose until the shutdown ends.
“They told me it would just be two weeks,” Velasco says through a translator. Her job at Subway was nearly full-time and her only source of income. “I’m looking, but I haven’t found another job.” She’s receiving no compensation during the shutdown and is trying to make do “with what I have.” A Subway spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
Velasco’s face shows no expression, but tears begin slipping out from behind her dark sunglasses. Asked how the situation has made her feel, the Hyattsville resident wipes the tears away before answering.
“Malo,” she says, and asks to end the interview.
Photo by Jenny Rogers