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Bertrand Olotara: the US Senate cook struggling to get off food stamps | US news
Bertrand Olotara: the US Senate cook struggling to get off
food stamps | US news
Bertrand Olotara has two college degrees, works two jobs and is on public assistance.
The 44-year-old divorced father of five gets up five days a week at 4.30am to commute nearly an
hour each way to the US Capitol. There, he works at the deli station in the Senate cafeteria as an
employee of a multinational conglomerate called Compass. He comes home weary but ready to cook
dinner for his school-aged children and eager to check their homework, which he insists gets done
right after school.
On weekends, Olotara gets up at the same time and goes to work in the freezer section of Whole
Foods. Even in the middle of the sweltering mid-Atlantic summer, he has to wear three coats to stay
Related: I am a cook in the US Senate but I still need food stamps to feed my children | Bertrand
An immigrant from the Republic of Congo with a law degree from his homeland, Olotara came to the
US and got a second bachelor's degree from Strayer University, a for-profit school where he studied
business. But Olotara doesn't complain about his job. He's not dissatisfied with the early start, the
long commute or the conditions. Instead, he worries that at a wage of $12.30 an hour, his family will
be unable "get out of the system [of public assistance]" and can never achieve "a decent life".
His op-ed in the Guardian on Wednesday, in which he described his days cooking for US senators
and his nights relying on food stamps to feed his five children, went viral. In it, he called for Barack
Obama to issue an executive order to mandate that federal contractors like him receive a living wage
of $15 an hour with benefits and the ability to collectively bargain. The op-ed coincided with Olotara
joining around 40 other coworkers, one of whom is homeless, in a one-day strike to call for higher
Bertrand Olotara stands with his five children, left to right, Mason, Jason, Gabriella, Jennifer and
Claire. Photograph: Jocelyn Augustino/Guardian
In an interview with Olotara in his unadorned townhouse in a development outside Washington DC,
the food worker didn't come across as a radical or someone with a chip on his shoulder. Instead,
Olotara, a soft-spoken goateed man with an athletic build from 20 years playing basketball, seems
like a man desperate to find a way to get off public assistance and ensure that his children have a
Olotara sat on a used sofa in his sparse living room. There was no art on the walls, although the
floors were swept clean and his children's shoes were stacked by the front door to keep it that way.
On the computer he bought so his kids could do their homework, his two youngest children were
looking at YouTube videos of things they wanted to buy and probably never would. Olotara's five-
year-old daughter Gabriella was transfixed by a video of a Barbie Dream House; nine-year-old Justin
was looking at highlights from Grand Theft Auto 5. On the porch were two children's bikes, both of
which had notable signs of rust.
Olotara made $36,000 last year. It was just enough for him not to qualify for forbearance for his
$89,000 student loan debt but still left him eligible for food stamps, section 8 housing and Medicaid.
His hope was that with a $15-an-hour wage, he would be able to give up his second job, spend some
time with his children and not have to rely on government assistance to pay the bills.
In fact, the very idea of getting government aid seemed to bother Olotara. He prided himself that
"since I arrived in the United States, I've been working". In fact, Olotara was hoping for a raise
because it would enable him to be more self-reliant. "I don't want to be on assistance," he said. "I
want to get out of the system."
Olotara's pride was also visible in how he pushed himself to set an example for his children. He
cooked every night. "No McDonald's," he said. For him it was important to show his kids that
"Daddy's taking care of this." He added that he saw it "as kind of a legacy".
His oldest son, Mason, is a junior in high school planning on going to college, where he thinks he
might study computer science "because there are always opportunities". In fact, in the family's living
room, among the handful of items under the coffee table, was a college recruitment letter addressed
to Mason Olotara. It sat nestled between a religious magazine and a book of word searches.
Olotara expressed his hope that his children's "dreams should be beyond mine" and that they
wouldn't have to work two jobs like their father. Yet the children packed into the townhouse's
upstairs bedrooms - their father sleeps in the basement - seemed mostly unaware of his activism. His
op-ed didn't quite register with them; nor did the bright blue shirt emblazoned with the word
"strike" that he was wearing.
Bertrand Olotara shows his daughter Jennifer a video on his cellphone. Photograph: Jocelyn
Yet for all his struggles, Olotara had an immigrant's pride. He compared his new country to France,
where he spent several years living in Paris. While he thought "Paris is good", he said "America is
where you can make your dream come true." He gushed about the freedoms of his adopted country:
"It's the only country where you are free to say whatever you think, whether it's right or wrong.
There's freedom of speech."
Although Olotara denied he was nervous about returning to work on Thursday, he seemed a little
anxious. "Everybody is going to look at me," he said as he shifted his weight tentatively back and
forth. Yet he felt confident that he made the right decision in going on strike.
"Some people are scared to speak," he said. "Someone has to start. Someone has to make the first
Some people are scared to speak. Someone has to thajska start. Someone has to make the first
In a statement, Cheryl Queen, a spokeswoman for Compass, told the Guardian that Restaurant
Associates (RA), the subsidy of Compass that handles food service operations at the US Senate,
"takes pride in paying above market competitive wages, and while we're unable to comment on
personal information for any one associate, RA can confirm that its contracts with the United States
Senate and the Capitol Visitors Center are in full compliance with ... the wage and benefits
provisions within the McNamara-O'Hara Service Contract Act".
Olotara has a handful of simple ambitions if his salary ever gets increased and he can save money.
He would like to buy a house and also dreams of taking his children on vacation. Ideally, Olotara
would take them his native Congo, to see his mother who has never met her grandchildren.
But that dream is a long way away. After all, to take a vacation, you need to have a day off.
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