Restaurants: The New Sweatshops?

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Michael S. Yamashita / Corbis

Two waiters serve roasted pig.

Eating out has become as American as apple pie, but for those manning the kitchen, restaurant work is anything but an American dream. Dishwashers, waiters and delivery people are increasingly served up unfair pay, discrimination and dangerous working conditions.

A new report from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, Unregulated Work in the Global City, documents a disturbing pattern of health and safety violations, wage inequities, and other indignities that plague a surprisingly broad swath of low-wage urban laborers. The report highlights a range of dramatic daily violations. And while the Brennan Center focused its research between 2003 and 2006 on New York City specifically, labor experts say the problem manifests itself in cities across the country. The number of federal lawsuits alleging violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act has more than doubled in recent years, growing from 1,854 in 2000 to 4,389 in 2006.

"There are plenty of responsible employers in these low wage industries who are trying to do the right thing and comply with our labor laws," says Annette Bernhardt, the study's author and deputy director of the Brennan Center's Justice Program. "But they're starting to come under pressure from unscrupulous employers, and they're getting dragged down in a race to the bottom, which is bad for our entire labor market."

More than 5 million people work in restaurants nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, including more than two million waiters and waitresses, two million line cooks and food preparers, and half a million dishwashers. About two-thirds of restaurant workers are foreign born, and increasingly, they're from Central and South America. The Brennan Center Study, which drew on extensive worker interviews, industry publications, prior studies and data on government enforcement efforts, concludes that many restaurant workers earn less than the minimum wage. Tips are often arbitrarily confiscated, overtime pay is rare, and wage deductions for things like broken plates and spoiled food are commonplace.

The mistreatment of restaurant workers at a number of well-known eateries has recently prompted public outrage. At Saigon Grill, Ollie's and Jing Fong in New York City, delivery workers walked off the job in protest of wage and tip policies. More than two dozen city restaurants have been sued over the past year, and legal action has also been taken against restaurants in Florida, Kentucky, New Jersey and Rhode Island. "We have in our restaurant community a great many ethnic restaurants owned and operated by people for whom English is not their first language," says Chuck Hunt, Executive Vice President for the New York State Restaurant Association, "and perhaps the violations have not been fully explained."

But Bernhardt and her coauthors found that restaurateurs themselves readily acknowledged that overtime and other violations were widespread. A study conducted by the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, a worker advocacy group, found that 13% of workers earned less than the minimum wage, and 59% had suffered overtime violations, having pay withheld for extra hours of work. The average dishwasher makes just $180 to $300 a week for 50 to 80 hours on the job. Delivery people typically make just $120 to $200 for a similar number of hours, plus tips that can vary widely. Restaurant owners are required to ensure that total wages and tips reach the minimum wage, but many don't.

"The Department of Labor is aware of the violations," says New York State Department of Labor Commissioner Patricia Smith, who was appointed in December of 2006. "We're going to have broader enforcement. We're going to have more proactive enforcement."

"Immigrant workers are vulnerable to exploitation whether they're legal or illegal. They often don't speak English and they come from countries where the wages are very low, so even if they are making less than minimum wage, they're making more than they would be at home," Smith says. So they're reluctant to protest conditions set by employers. In May, the New York State Labor Department established the Bureau of Immigrant Workers' Rights to make sure immigrant workers aren't treated differently from those born in the United States.

But that office alone is unlikely to remedy the broader problem of underpaid, undervalued work in urban restaurants. "They are not isolated, short-lived cases of exploitation at the fringe of the city's economy," writes Bernhardt in the report. "Instead, the systematic violation of our country's core employment and labor laws ... is threatening to become a way of doing business for unscrupulous employers. And yet from the standpoint of public policy, these jobs — and the workers who hold them — are too often off the radar screen."