For kitchen staff at federal agencies, background checks are a must-order item

Hiring has ground to a crawl because of lengthy waits for security clearances


A kitchen worker sets up the salad bar Tuesday at the Food and Drug Administration cafeteria in Washington’s Maryland suburbs. Stricter security practices have slowed hiring for the area’s official kitchens and dining halls. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

The lunch lines at the main cafeteria on the sprawling campus of the Food and Drug Administration in White Oak, Md., are bigger than the brunch crowd at 14th Street’s latest farm-to-table, craft-cocktail, artisanal restaurant.

And the staff is struggling to keep up. They’re short at least three employees to help prepare the dragon rolls, work the turkey carving station and replenish the croutons at the double-sided salad bar.

In post-Edward Snowden Washington, hiring for official kitchens and dining halls is grinding to a crawl. Every busboy, dishwasher and cashier requires elaborate background checks, which include lengthy waits for fingerprinting, a credit check and sometimes even a polygraph.

“This says so much about Washington right now,” said David Filbeck, director of staffing at Occasions Caterers, which serves the State Department, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress.

Before Snowden, he had to wait less than a week for background checks for his waitstaff. But in recent months, they take up to six weeks, he said.


Jimmy Quach, Asian executive chef at the Library of Congress, makes stir-fry chicken with fresh vegetables in January 2013. As federal hiring slows to a crawl, many kitchen workers are turning to the city’s thriving restaurant scene for work. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Why would kitchen staff wade into that bureaucratic rigmarole when they can earn $300 a night working on 14th Street now? “Meanwhile, to work for us, they have to go through the fingerprints and credit checks,” he said. “It just limits the number of people we can send to a State Department dinner or an event at the Supreme Court.”

Most are instead finding ready employment in Washington’s booming culinary scene, where 100 restaurants opened last year.

To compensate, employees of federal cafeterias and dining rooms simply work more hours, say those who hire for the government and their contractors. Or sometimes, they call in the military. They aren’t always available because army mess cooks usually have to feed their own.

Undocumented immigrants, a staple of kitchens across Washington, need not apply for federal jobs. To make matters worse, kitchen staff themselves say they often fail the credit check because they tend to be low-paid and frequently change jobs.

“We chefs lead kind of storied lives for background checks,” said Frank Ruta, who was a White House chef during the Reagan administration and until recently ran the upscale Cleveland Park restaurant Palena. “But in all seriousness, in Washington right now, the labor pool hasn’t caught up with the boom. It’s a real problem for hiring in restaurants, let alone in the government.”

Some security experts argue that clearances and background checks are essential, especially for anyone handling food.

“There’s a reason kings hired courtiers to taste their food,” said Bill Golden, the chief executive of IntelligenceCareers.com and of USADefenseIndustryJobs.com.

Everyone who works for the government or is hired by a contractor is required to have a basic background check, which typically examines employment and both criminal and credit history. Anyone working at a government-secured facility, like an intelligence agency, or who has access to classified documents must get a clearance, which involves an even more-rigorous vetting, Golden said.

It’s long been true that support staff — from the NASA janitor sweeping the floors to the CIA driver ferrying high-profile agents — need varying levels of checks and clearance.

What’s changed is that every agency “is running frantic about accidentally hiring the next Snowden, [Wikileaks leaker] Bradley Manning, and [Navy Yard shooter] Aaron Alexis, and so that means they are going to take a much deeper look and spend more time studying that cook or cleaner,” said Evan Lesser, founder of ClearanceJobs.com, which matches employers with employees who have security clearance.

“It’s really about the proximity to power,” Lesser said. “And those who don’t make that much money and might be facing a financial hardship can be easily bribed to overhear things.”

While there’s been no new government policy requiring more rigorous checks after the Snowden leaks and Navy Yard shootings, agencies have grown skittish and are asking for better vetting of employees, he said.

This month, Sodexo, the French catering company that runs many government cafeterias, including the FDA’s, put out a job listing for an executive chef who “needs to have a Top Secret clearance.” The top chef with the top-secret clearance would manage the culinary operations “at a high profile government dining account in Herndon.”

National security blogs speculated that the position was for the National Counterterrorism Center. And FedScoop ran the headline, “Feeding the government’s hunger for security clearances — literally.”

Sodexo declined to comment for this report.

“Though it may seem ridiculous, the requirement for a chef with a top-secret clearance exemplifies a significant policy problem, namely the use of the ­security-clearance process as an employee screening tool,” said Steven Aftergood, the director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.

The federal government spends at least $400 million a year on investigations into 2 million employees who may not need clearances, according to Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who have introduced legislation to revamp the security-clearance system.

Fred DiFilippo, executive chef inside the CIA Agency Dining Room, says demand is so great for quality chefs that he advises students at his alma mater, the Culinary Institute of America (known by restaurateurs as “the other CIA”) to consider government work.

Once you have a clearance, “it will definitely make you more valuable in this market,” he said. The pay may be less than in private restaurants, but, he said, “it’s balanced out with the better quality of life you get from getting most nights, weekends and federal holidays off to spend time with your family.”

He also likes that he’s serving his country — literally. (Former director Leon Panetta enjoyed DiFilippo’s signature Italian cooking, which is highlighted by a dish on the current menu: lamb pine nut ravioli. )

At the FDA, most of the 8,000 employees, which include food scientists and drug researchers, don’t leave the college-size campus for lunch. The main cafeteria was recently remodeled and has a brightly lit atrium with towering windows. Translucent orange chairs are arrayed around cafe-like white tables.

Van Dennis, a lead cook in the main cafeteria, said the staffing shortage has left him so busy that he now has to get up for work before the sun rises.

“That’s why we need someone who can jump right in,” said Dennis, who spent a recent morning preparing 21 gallons of eggs. “We got 400 breakfasts to make. There’s no time to be waiting around for formalities.”

Julie Tate contributed to this report.

Emily Wax-Thibodeaux is a National staff writer who covers veterans, veterans' affairs and the culture of government. She's an award-winning former foreign correspondent who covered Africa and India for nearly a decade. She also covered immigration, crime and education for the Metro staff.
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