Yesterday Next American City published my piece on the implications of low-income jobs, and non-traditional labor organizing, for our cities. The second half of my post, which I’ll focus on today, is about the restaurant industry (which, unlike Wal-Mart style retail, I’ve had personal experience in).
Earlier this month the Philadelphia Chapter of the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) released a report, “Behind the Kitchen Door,” on the state of the food service industry in Philadelphia which, until recently, was the only sector experiencing significant job growth. The numbers didn’t look too good, as you might expect from a an industry with a national median income of $18,130 per year. As I noted in my Next American City piece:
It’s not hard to see why [ROC] decided to open up shop in Philly. Here, according to a recent ROC report, restaurants raked in $2.3 billion in 2007 (most recent year data was available), a 40 percent [increase in the number of restaurants], while wages declined by 11 percent since 2001. The industry is rife with labor law and wage violations; Some 40 percent of Philly restaurant workers worked off the clock without pay and almost 58 percent were not paid overtime, ROC reported.
“We have done same research in eight other and we run into the same problems across the industry, across the country,” says Fabricio Rodriguez, lead coordinator of ROC Philadelphia. “And all these features that people in the restaurant industry face every day are very common in the [anywhere in] service economy.” [Bold my own.]
Wage theft is rampant in Philadelphia’s low-wage service economy, particularly in its restaurants and bars. Very few are offered paid sick leave (7.2 percent) or any form of health care coverage (5.7 percent). One ROC member, who works as a waitress, told attendees of the October 10, Restaurant Industry Summit of her “constant fear” of getting sick and being unable to make rent. Sounds familiar. When I worked in a restaurant in Maryland, no one ever took days off for illness: Not only was that a sliver of an already meager income lost, but there was a general institutional bias against it. We were young, so we were expected to tough it out (and try not to snot on the customers’ food).
That may just be an unpleasant aspect of a temporary job for college students, but in an economy that is mostly creating low-wage jobs, at the expense of middle-income work, there are a lot of people waiting tables and working as line chefs on a non-temporary basis. They need the ability to take time off, with reasonable pay, if they get sick or have to take a loved one to the hospital.
For that reason ROC has championed Philly’s unsuccessful earned sick leave bill, which would require that all employers offer a specific amount of paid sick days after an employee has worked a specific number of hours. (The latter passed City Council, but was vetoed by Mayor Michael Nutter.) If more 92.8 percent of food service employers are unwilling to treat their workers as human beings with lives outside of work, than the government should require that they do. That, after all, is what government should be for: Protecting and promoting the interests of those without the individual power and privilege to stand alone. (A category that encompasses the vast majority of society.)
The Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, of course, does not take this view. In a recent Metro Daily article on the dismal state of labor in Philly food service industry, the CEO of the association, Patrick Conroy, dismissed ROC’s findings: “This group has formed chapters in other cities and they come out with virtually the same report.” This is an absurdly lazy rebuttal, even for an industry group (which aren’t known for the originality, or accuracy, of their claims). The reason ROC’s city-specific reports are very similar, is that conditions within the restaurant industry are very similar. Similarly terrible.
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