SF Gate — No Sitting Down On the Job

San Francisco is famous for food. Yet the folks who cook it, wait on tables, wash the dishes and do the many other jobs that make restaurants work are almost invisible. Twelve million people work in this country’s restaurants, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — about 41,000 of them in San Francisco. Most are women, and so many young people work in restaurants that it’s commonly thought of as young people’s work. Young people, especially minorities and immigrants, make up a cheap pool of labor for multibillion- dollar corporations such as McDonald’s, Starbucks and Subway.

Because most restaurant wages are so low, it’s also assumed you can’t support a family by waiting tables. According to the UC Berkeley Labor Center, only 40 percent of San Francisco’s restaurant workers get the minimum wage — $8.50 an hour in San Francisco, for the few employers who provide health benefits. Yet the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the Bay Area is $1,554 a month — meaning you have to make $9.14 an hour just to pay rent. For those workers who get tips, the picture isn’t much brighter.

The restaurant industry has been very successful at fighting minimum-wage increases, stricter health and safety standards and better overtime laws. And it has powerful friends. In December, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed making it much harder for workers to file complaints about lunch breaks. Most restaurant workers say employers don’t provide breaks or paid lunch periods, despite what the law says. Even before the governor tried to weaken the law, people risked their jobs trying to enforce it.

 For immigrants in Chinatown or the Mission, the situation is even worse. Restaurant work is an entry point into our economy — often the first job newcomers get. But immigrant workers are often concentrated in the jobs that pay the least and where the most frequent violations of labor rights occur. Even among immigrants, however, Chinatown is a special zone where the rules governing employment elsewhere don’t seem to apply. That was the case at the defunct King Tin restaurant, where workers actually went without wages for weeks in 2004 and had to file state claims just to get a paycheck.

Workers have filed claims against such eateries as the Cheesecake Factory over unpaid breaks and Lori’s Diner over sexual harassment. Schwarzenegger’s proposed regulation, however, would make it much easier for restaurant owners to make breaks virtually nonexistent. Not only that, it would make make much more difficult what workers are doing to defend themselves — going to court.

Meanwhile, enforcing existing law is shrinking with the state budget, and some of the governor’s proposals to streamline government — including eliminating the Industrial Welfare Commission — could make enforcement even harder. Fortunately, the city’s restaurant workers also have some important allies — Young Workers United, the Chinese Progressive Association and Equal Rights Advocates.

The next time you sit down in a restaurant, look at the person who put the plate in front of you, or who cleared it away. When you hear these people are young or immigrants, that they don’t need the same wages or conditions that you do, ask yourself: Could I work an entire shift without eating or sitting down? Could I pay my rent on $8.50 an hour? And if my boss cheated me, or violated the law, would I have the courage to protest? The individuals below did. These are their stories.

Marilyn Smith

At the Cheesecake Factory, we had never taken breaks. Then, in January of 2003, they told us they were going to start giving us meal periods. But they asked us to come in an hour early, and take our break at the beginning of our shift, so it wouldn’t interrupt business.

We thought that was illegal, went to the labor board. They said there was a law against it, and that the Cheesecake Factory owed us a lot of money. So we got a bunch of claim forms and started talking to people.

Every night after work we’d meet and fill out claims. People worried they would be singled out and get fired. But when they found out they were owed thousands of dollars, things were different. We’re not going to be there for the rest of our lives. We’re only servers, and that’s a lot of money for a server.

We turned in about 150 claims, and that was a little more than the labor board could handle. We waited and waited, and they put a message on their voicemail saying, if you’re from the Cheesecake Factory, don’t call us, we’ll call you. The claims had been filed for a year, and the labor board wasn’t doing anything. Then Young Workers United got involved, and they got the ball rolling.

The managers cornered me and started asking me questions, because they knew I was one of the people involved. They were angry, and they’re still angry. From the start, the company moved against me. I have to watch my back. I know that every move that I make is a big deal now. I’m paying a price for it.

We had a rally across the street from the Cheesecake Factory, and after that I was suspended for something very minor. They took me off the schedule, and gave all my shifts away. All the rumors were that Marilyn’s been fired. But finally I got my job back. I’m not going to give it up. As long as I’m doing my job, there’s nothing they can do. I’m probably overly nice to my guests, just so I don’t get any complaints. They’re just looking for any little thing. But this just makes me stronger.

(See the restaurant’s response below.).

Patty Senecal

My first waitressing job, I would work double shifts on the weekends, from 10 o’clock in the morning to sometimes 9 or 10 at night. Long shifts. You get used to it after a while, but I remember coming home and feeling like I couldn’t walk for days.

When you’re working these kinds of jobs you do things out of desperation to make your rent. You go in for a shift from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and then wait three hours for your next shift to start. You don’t get breaks when you work in the restaurant industry, and that’s everywhere.

I worked at the Cheesecake Factory for two years, and they never gave us breaks. Then, all over the state restaurant workers began filing claims about their breaks. So the Cheesecake Factory had us come in an hour before our scheduled shift. You’d get in your uniform, and you’d fold napkins for half an hour. Then you would clock out for a break, and then work your eight-hour shift. You were not allowed to eat during these eight hours, or leave the vicinity. If you did, you’d get reprimanded and written up.

Technically, they’d say your break was during your shift, because you’d come in an hour earlier to fold napkins.

If you took food into the back during your shift and tried to eat it, you’d get written up. Once, after working all day, I just sat in this chair out of my customers’ view, because I was so tired. I immediately got lectured and yelled at. For just sitting down..

Debby Zurzolo, general counsel for the Cheesecake Factory, said the chain “takes its obligations as an employer seriously and believes it has been in compliance with California law concerning meal and rest breaks.” To resolve complaints raised in the litigation (including those of Bay Area employees), the chain reached a tentative settlement “which we believe is reasonable and fair,” she said, adding that because the court has yet to approve the agreement, “it would not be appropriate to provide further comment.”.

Chris Jackson

It’s so hard to see a lot of my friends in college work three jobs. What are you learning that way? Basically, your whole life is school, work, work, work.

There’s something wrong when we have to work three jobs just to get by. Service industries have youth by the throat. The restaurant and retail industries know we don’t

know our rights, and that we’re desperate for these jobs. So they say, if you want it so bad, you’re just going to have to take it.

It’s like a rite of passage that as young people, we have to work crappy jobs, and then, when we graduate from college and get older, we get the good jobs with the union and all that. We’re forced to accept that. We work late hours, and suffer labor violations, and they tell us it’s how it’s always been.

Something has to change. When you’re young you should have a right to a good job, and when you get your education, you also have a right to a good job. There should be no gap in labor rights.

We’re a very pro-union city, but not for young people, not for the service sector. And it’s because we say there are young people working there, getting their education, and they have something better coming along.

But we’re struggling right now, trying to pay our rent and stay in school to get that good job. So you’re going to have to pay us proper wages. You can’t fire us just because you said so. Just treat us like human beings.

The fact is the city and state don’t have enough money to enforce the law. You can know all there is to know about your rights, but if there’s no teeth in any these laws, what’s the good of it? We have to put more money into enforcing these rights, so that youth don’t have to struggle to do it..

Pak Wai Tam

In Chinatown, every worker knows there’s only a monthly wage. It’s normal to work 10 hours or more every day in these restaurants. The owners pay us very low wages, or don’t pay us at all, because they know we can’t work anywhere else. You see, Chinatown is like a special district.

When I started at King Tin Restaurant I got $900 a month. Then, in 1998, I got $1,300 a month. The boss told us that $1,300 was the minimum wage. I worked 10 hours a day, six days a week. We heard that in the restaurants outside of Chinatown, workers would get overtime, but we Chinese wouldn’t get it.

Of course we thought it was unfair, but a lot of us are new immigrants. Since we didn’t speak English, there was nothing we could do about it. And since I didn’t have any skills, I didn’t have any other choice. I had to make a living in Chinatown.

Starting in March of 2004, the boss didn’t pay us for three to four months. It was really tough on the new immigrants, who couldn’t pay for rent and food. We asked the boss, “Why do you cheat us like this?” Finally the son of a former owner, who became our friend over the years, helped us fill out the forms to complain.

After the investigation, the owners closed the restaurant. After we organized and went to the media, the owners gave us our back wages, but they still owe us the difference between minimum wage and what we were paid, the overtime we worked and our vacation time.

We’re still fighting for that. .

The bankruptcy lawyer for the restaurant, Douglas Van Vlear, acknowledged that the workers’ remaining complaints were “not resolved,” but that King Tin went out of business with no assets and many financial problems, including unfulfilled obligations to the landlord and vendors as well..

Jasmine Donaldson

Money and me is a big thing because I’m a student. I had to be able to pay for classes. Working at Lori’s Diner allowed me to do that. I loved my job. All my best friends worked at Lori’s.

Pretty much the whole staff is women, at least the waitresses. So we bonded. But once the sexual harassment started, it all went downhill.

It started the first day. I ordered a chicken Caesar salad, but you have to ask, please daddy can I have this. Being my first day, I didn’t tell my manager. I just wanted to keep my job.

Any rap song that came on, they’d sing and direct it toward me and my body. It got worse once I found out they were watching me get dressed. Then they started talking about my birthmark, which is on my right lower hip. There’s no way to see it without seeing me naked. I finally found out that they’d drilled a hole through the diaper changer in the men’s bathroom into the locker room and had been watching us. Even though managers had known about it in December, the hole wasn’t covered until March.

It was very humiliating. The thing that really hurt was that I never asked for any of it. I was really like a slave, a servant to them.

But I couldn’t quit because I needed the money. Not having a job is a lot worse than having to deal with sexual harassment. I’d rather not be living in the Tenderloin, asking Glide for food. My mom is a single mother, and she was homeless with us. I knew I had to keep a job, no matter what.

Lori’s fired me, and that’s not fair, after working there for two years. And they still haven’t fired any of the people who were watching me in that hole.

But I’m glad they fired me, because if it weren’t for that, I would never have stood up. With the help of Young Workers United and Equal Rights Advocates, I’ve been able to say, “This can’t happen to other women either.” I just want to let other women know that it’s OK to talk. It needs to be heard now that this is not right. It’s not going to go on any longer..

The restaurant’s attorney, Phillip F. Shinn, said Lori’s Diner “is not prepared to comment while the case is being litigated in the courts.”.

Katie Salas

I’ve just had so many minimum-wage jobs. I’ve always been struggling. People think young people have it easy, that working in a bar is the life. But it’s not. Working under the table, I usually don’t make minimum wage for an 8- hour shift, but I get whatever tips I make. So it’s just really important to tip your waitress, tip your bartender. Don’t dismiss them and think that it’s just a side thing.

I walk around the place, and the customers order their drinks. Usually I don’t ask for the money first – I take my own money. I pay the bartenders for the drinks, and then the customers pay me, and I keep whatever tips I get. At the end of the night I get a day’s wage, like $60. The boss is really nice, and we have a good relationship. If it’s a really hard night, she’ll give me an additional bonus of $20.

The downside is that it’s hard to make a formal complaint if something goes wrong. I’ve been really lucky. Sometimes, the customers are rude and try to grab me. That happens a lot. I’m not that forceful, not that big or intimidating.

I really like working with people, but I don’t want to serve them in that way. People yell at you all the time and the cooks usually hit on you constantly. I go to work and I make my moves and make the jokes and listen to their stories. But I don’t feel good about serving people alcohol, and watching them get drunk. I just have to do it. Or I don’t get paid.

I want to be a librarian. I hope not to work in restaurant jobs again. Some people end up in it their own entire lives, and I don’t want that to be me.

David Bacon is a writer and photographer who hosts the Labor Report on KPFA’s Morning Show.

Link: No Sitting Down On the Job