- Restaurateur and chef José Andrés opened a pop-up restaurant in Washington, DC to distribute free meals to federal workers affected by the record-long partial government shutdown.
- Members of Congress have volunteered to distribute food at the restaurant, which has given nearly 38,000 meals since the shutdown began.
- The 800,000 furloughed or unpaid federal workers will miss their second paycheck on Friday.
WASHINGTON – Despite heavy rains blanketing the capital on Thursday, a line full of federal workers waiting for a free meal at chef José Andrés pop-up restaurant still went out the door and down the block.
The celebrity restaurateur and chef has served nearly 38,000 meals to federal employees during the record-long partial government shutdown, in which 800,000 workers have been furloughed or forced to work without pay. Those workers will miss their second paycheck this week as the shutdown stretches into day 35.
The restaurant is at Andrés’ own ThinkFoodLab, a test-kitchen and venue for private events. It’s been open for nine days so far, and the award-winning chef plans to keep it running until the shutdown ends. The free meals are provided by Andrés’ non-profit World Central Kitchen, which brings food to disaster zones and impoverished countries. The group served more than 2 million people in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
The pop-up, which is in downtown Washington near the White House and various other federal agencies, has been a madhouse of nonstop food and meals being distributed to public servants.
Unpaid workers fret as they wait for a hot meal
One furloughed employee named Pablo, who works security for the federal courts system in Washington, told INSIDER that like many of his coworkers, he has had to dip into his savings to compensate for the lack of payment during the now 34-day shutdown.
Pablo said he was concerned about the heavy workload that will result when the government reopens, as backlogged business finally being addressed could potentially create a chaotic scene.
“It’s a sign somebody cares,” Pablo said of Andrés’ restaurant, adding he felt that the rest of the country – as well as lawmakers on Capitol Hill – did not seem to be prioritising the shutdown as a crisis.
While scores of federal workers waited in what appeared to be a relatively fast-moving line on Thursday, volunteers passed out snacks and coffee before patrons entered to get full meals, including vegan options.
At one point, Vice President Mike Pence’s motorcade taking him to the US Capitol for a meeting with Senate Republicans zoomed by the restaurant, prompting groans from and a handful of mobile phone snapshots.
Trump administration officials have come under fire for their portrayal of the strain on federal workers
The scene at Andrés’ pop-up is in direct contrast to sentiments from Trump administration officials, who have attempted to downplay the effect missed paychecks have had on the nearly 800,000 federal workers.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross came under fire Thursday for comments about how federal workers have fared during the shutdown.
In a CNBC interview, Ross suggested workers just take out loans to pay for necessities because they will receive the back-pay when the shutdown is resolved, even if that would come with interest. He also questioned why federal workers would be going to food banks and places like Andrés’ restaurant for free meals.
“I know they are and I don’t understand why because, as I mentioned before, the obligations that they would undertake – say, borrowing from a bank or a credit union – are in effect federally guaranteed,” Ross said. “So the 30 days of pay that some people will be out, there’s no real reason why they shouldn’t be able to get a loan against it, and we’ve seen a number of ads from financial institutions doing that.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reacted to the comments during a press conference, suggesting that Ross was out of touch with the plight of the federal workers, many of who live paycheck to paycheck, like most Americans.
“He doesn’t understand why they have to do that. I don’t know is this the ‘let them eat cake’ kind of attitude? Or call you father for money?” Pelosi said. “‘This is character building for you. It’s all going to end up very well for you as long as you don’t get your paychecks.’ I don’t quite understand why.”
Lawmakers drop by to lend a hand at the restaurant
The restaurant, which is predominantly staffed by volunteers, many of whom are federal workers or retirees, has been frequented by many different high-profile names looking to lend a hand.
Democratic presidential candidate John Delaney stopped by on Wednesday to distribute food to federal workers. On Thursday, more lawmakers showed up, including Maryland Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger and freshman New Hampshire Rep. Chris Pappas.
Pappas, who co-owns a restaurant in Manchester, New Hampshire that is a popular campaign spot during presidential election cycles, told INSIDER that volunteering in the kitchen felt like “second nature.”
“It’s a well-oiled machine and encouraging to see that there are so many people willing to volunteer,” he said. “We’re seeing this across the country where people are stepping forward to do the right thing. And it’s incumbent on the leaders at the highest levels of government to do the right thing as well.”
Pappas noted that House Democrats have voted to reopen the government 10 times since taking back the majority amid the partial shutdown earlier this month, though each package has been without the border security funds President Donald Trump and Republicans are demanding.
Two more competing bills to end the shutdown failed in the Senate Thursday.
Members of Congress, whether volunteering to help federal workers going without a paycheck or returning to their home districts, were advised to be prepared to return to Washington in the event a deal is struck over the weekend, according to the House Majority Leader’s office.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.