Adriana Alvarez has worked at McDonald’s for 18 years, and despite the consistently poor working conditions had avoided filing any sort of official complaint for fear of drawing unwanted reprisals from her bosses.
When the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the country, and McDonald’s refused to close its doors in the face of a global public health catastrophe, she decided she couldn’t stay quiet anymore.
“We didn’t have masks, we didn’t have sanitation stations, or even really soap to wash our hands. We weren’t being told to maintain social distancing,” Alvarez told me, speaking through an interpreter.
Alvarez filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), hoping the oversight agency would pressure the store into making changes or take McDonald’s to task for its negligence.
Nothing happened, at first, and Alvarez caught COVID while working at McDonald’s.
The manager never informed her, or any other workers, that employees at the store had caught the virus. She had to find out from other employees.
Alvarez said at least six other people at her store also got sick, and many, like Kenia Campeano, ended up bringing it home to their families.
“One of the managers got sick, spread it to her dad, and he ended up passing away,” Alvarez said.
Alvarez and Campeano both work at a McDonald’s on the south side of Chicago in Gage Park, a neighborhood between Midway Airport and Englewood.
That part of the city, where a much higher percentage of low-income and families of color reside, experienced disproportionate deaths from the virus.
Vaccine distribution is lagging in the neighborhood despite the higher rate of mortality.
OSHA received over 2,600 COVID-19 related complaints from restaurants and eating places since they began keeping track in February of 2020 according to the most recent public report of closed cases.
Complaints to the oversight agency from the food service industry aren’t very common.
It keeps track of over 600,000 eating establishments, and amid a global pandemic OSHA noted complaints from less than a half percent of those.
That doesn’t mean those restaurants don’t have health and safety issues.
Rather, workers are unwilling or unable to file a report because they don’t know how best to get in touch, they don’t know how to navigate the web of state versus federal oversight agencies, they need assistance filling out the forms for accuracy or language barrier, or they’re afraid of retribution from an employer.
Alvarez and Campeano said they wouldn’t have been able to file their complaints on their own without help from Fight for 15 campaign organizers.
The majority of COVID-related complaints came from national and regional chains, though one in particular, McDonald’s, stands out far and away from the rest.
The fast food behemoth has one hundred more complaints than the next closest offender, and about as many complaints as the next four chains combined, which includes Taco Bell, Dunkin’ Donuts, Buffalo Wild Wings, and Subway.
“McDonald’s as company is really a big reason for that, because a lot of vulnerable workers go to work at McDonald’s, specifically undocumented workers go to McDonald’s because they’ll get hired no questions asked,” Campeano said. “McDonald’s, at the end of the day, doesn’t care about the quality, they care about the quantity, right, so many of those workers are then exploited.”
As of May 11 2021, OSHA issued penalties of just over $145,000 to food and agriculture companies, according to Civil Eats.
On top of that, workers say changes made are often temporary, or just for show, as restaurants are often informed ahead of time they’ll be inspected, and many are never inspected in person.
“[They’re] making it easier for the corporation to get away with what they’re doing,” Campeano said.
It was only after an OSHA representative visited their McDonald’s store in person that Campeano and Alvarez got access to the most basic of necessities.
That visit was coupled with more than twenty complaints from McDonald’s stores around the city, and national pressure from the Fight for 15 organizing campaign assisted by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
Yet, the complaints only led to limited concessions and little repercussion.
“A big piece of the puzzle is making sure that the consequences for employers that don’t follow the guidance are sizable. If you evaluate a fine and determine that the fine literally costs less than the protective equipment, well then you’ve got a pretty blunt tool to accomplish what you need to do,” said Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns for the United Farm Workers (UFW), based in California.
McDonald’s stores faced few-to-no consequences.
They raked in cash while their employees and employees’ families struggled with illness.
“My store, I know, made more than $300,000 in during the worst of the pandemic, and they kept making money,” Campeano said. “Despite making all the money they were making, they still did not offer to pay quarantine pay for workers, forcing a lot of workers to go to work sick, and make the problem even worse.”
Alvarez said that while she was happy to speak out against the company she didn’t do so without consequences.
“I got a day cut from my schedule, and people did end up judging me and saying ‘well, look at that, they cut a day from your schedule for speaking up,’” Alvarez said. “My response to them has always been if I hadn’t spoken up and done something there wouldn’t be any changes here. We wouldn’t have our masks. We wouldn’t have soap and sanitation stations, and more people would just be getting sick.”
If OSHA is going be effective, workers say, at bare minimum it needs to stop doing announced workplace inspections.
Workers also say OSHA needs to be conducting pre-interviews with workers that made the complaints to clarify and understand the full extent of problems.
But, fixing OSHA won’t correct all of the issues with McDonald’s or the restaurant industry as a whole.
“We need all the support that we can get from different organizations, other workers. Like go out with us when we do protests and marches, join us, because we can’t live in fear of our hours being cut or retaliation or any type of pushback,” Alvarez said. “We just need to join together.”
by Natalia Tylim
In March 2020 the Marriott Marquis in Times Square furloughed 1,200 workers due to COVID closures. Nine months later, in December, the corporation informed 852 non-union employees that they were permanently let go, effective March 12th. Since December, a group of the fired workers have come together to organize around saving their jobs. They have two main demands: full severance pay and City Council Right to Recall legislation that ensures workers furloughed or laid off due to coronavirus be offered their jobs back.
When Marriott Marquis workers first started pushing for right to recall laws ensuring certain workers laid off due to coronavirus were given priority in rehiring, it already been passed in Las Vegas, California and Pittsburgh. To get a law on the books in NYC, the workers held rallies and bombarded City Council events with the demand. Through those efforts, they were able to get through to Brad Landers who sits on the NYC City Council, and Brad Holyman, the Senator for the district the hotel is located in. Holyman helped pass the story along to the Attorney General who has helped them navigate the severance dynamics.
Marriott is automatically enrolling all the workers in severance, offering them only the flexibility of choosing a lump sum or installment payments. The company is also claiming that their COBRA coverage to acceptance of those severance terms even though, legally, the American Relief Protection Act mandates that free COBRA to laid off workers be extended through September. This potentially illegal maneuver on the corporation’s part coerced workers to accept a low payout, since, once terms are accepted, the workers are voluntarily foregoing any right to return to their jobs.
Many Marriott Marquis workers still want to go back to their jobs, but the company wants to replace them with lower paid workers who receive fewer benefits, planning to outsource much of their food and beverage operation to a subcontractor. This group of non-union workers are organizing to pass right of recall legislation in New York City, which in this case would grant them protections similar to what many union contracts stipulate. Marriott is relying on the fact that the workers don’t know what they are entitled to and cannot find a way out of the options they are being offered. In the face of that, Marriott workers have come together to organize for what they deserve.
Natalia Tylim and an Anonymous Service Industry Worker conducted the following interview for The DIsh with three laid-off Marriott Marquis workers from the hotel restaurant, The View, who are leading this organizing effort. Brian Richards (33 years on the job), Pete Dorton (16 years on the job) and Asyah Azize (8 years on the job) talk about their struggle as non-union hotel restaurant workers and the lessons they have learned from the experience. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Natalia Tylim: Give us a little background on how this organizing came together and how you came to be involved.
Brian Richards: [In December] I got a termination letter. In New York, most outlets, hotels, and hotel restaurants are union. But we aren’t, Marriott has made a conscious effort to keep us from being union from day one. I took a lie detector test when I got the job back in the ‘80s [saying that I didn’t work for a union]. At the Mariott Marquis, every compensation decision, every insurance decision has always met or exceeded the union [rate]. So when I heard that they were going to close the restaurant I work at, it’s called The View, it’s a revolving restaurant in Times Square, I wanted to make sure that they were going to continue to follow union procedures, like they had promised. I was a little hesitant because I know that now it’s no longer in their vested interest to do so because it would get more expensive for them and they don’t need us anymore. We realized quickly that they were not going to follow union procedures and so we organized a group to try to protect our jobs. We tried to get a representative from every department. We built a really functioning core group of about 10 people.
Asyah Azize: When we were first furloughed I started helping coworkers out with unemployment problems that they were having. I took care of my fellow kitchen people, because everybody’s like 60 plus and couldn’t figure out how to file. In March, everybody still thought they were going back to their jobs. Now, December happens. You have no more job. What are you going to do? I mean, like, what are these people going to do if they can’t even do the unemployment thing? How the hell do you expect them to go back into the job market? A lot of them don’t have a resume. This is the only thing that they’ve ever done in their entire life. A lot of people were there 20 plus, 35 plus years. That’s my age! So Brian came around, and brought us together and called the first rally and we got organized from there. So I came into that because I was in charge of my little group. And because I’ve worked in lots of different departments in the hotel before settling at The View, which is my home, it was easier for me to reach everyone else. So that’s how I came into this whole little Brady bunch group.
Pete Dorton: When all this started, Brian reached out to me and I came on board. We decided that we would just bombard City Council and try to find somebody to get [right of recall] legislation brought forward. Finally we were able to reach out to Brad Lander on a town hall and we found out that he had started some type of draft about right to recall. We all jumped on the town hall and bombarded him with questions. Afterwards his chief of staff reached out to me about getting legislation going, and he was able to get it introduced and we held a press conference in Times Square to introduce the right to recall legislation.
Anonymous: Talk a little bit about how you came to the demands that you did.
Brian Richards: When we sat down to figure out what we wanted to achieve there were two primary targets. One was a proper union severance. We were aware that when Marriott closed down room service in the past, it mirrored the union severance package. I met with the general manager within a week of our termination and he told me what we’re going to get, he said it was going to be capped off at 10 years, one week[‘s pay] per year, which is a fraction of what I felt I personally with 32 years of service should receive. We want severance and the right to recall. And we had different strategies for both of them. In our case, we’re dealing with a massive corporation, a very, very successful, very, very rich, barely-impacted-by-COVID corporation. We came across a lawyer who was perfect for us. And so it became the lawyer versus lawyer. And Marriott has $4,000 an hour lawyers who are really elite, really arrogant, really, really good at fighting us to get us out of there as cheaply as possible and to protect Marriott, to prevent them from paying anything more than they intended to. I think without the Attorney General backing us, [the severance part of it] would probably not have gone anywhere.
Right to Recall was more of a city council initiative. We tried to lobby City Council. We had the rallies with the demand being Right to Recall.
Anonymous: I know there’s been a lot of different aspects to this organizing – back of house, front of house, getting in touch with people, different departments. What was it like bringing everybody together? And where are people at? Would people prefer the severance or would they prefer their jobs back?
Asyah Azize: It was a hot, hot mess in the beginning. Because even though we’re all employees of the same hotel, everybody’s got their little clique, their little group and their little family. So unless you’ve got someone on board that knew all of them, they just don’t trust you, don’t want to give you their information. It was a struggle in the beginning just to get these people’s information, because they’re thinking that they’re going back to work. They’re thinking that this is an option for them. They weren’t getting, “No, you’re not going back to work. You don’t have your job, they’re outsourcing.” And then they just thought right to recall would pass and we’ll all go back and it’s all going to be the same.
A lot of the younger workers just want to go back to work, and a lot of the older people are like, ‘well, screw this crap. I’ve been home for so long. I just want my [severance] money.’ But they know that they’re entitled to so much more because they put so much time and effort. Literally these people sacrificed their lives and probably marriages and relationships with their kids to work here, to provide for their families. And now they have nothing. It’s like you just got kicked out of your second – and maybe only – family. You have a lot of people that are impatient but we can only do so much, and you also need to take initiative and help us reach out. This hotel has so many immigrants and the communication with people whose English isn’t that great. I get texts and calls in the middle of the night, people are scared and they have a reason to be, but Google translate can only work so much.
Pete Dorton: Last night, I received a phone call at nine o’clock at night from somebody that was a concierge and she’d been there for 28 years. She was thanking us for the hard work and the organizing, but she still didn’t quite understand that she wasn’t going back. And she said, she’s sitting there writing a letter begging for them to bring us back and she was crying and telling me this and it broke my heart. I was trying to explain things. You know, you want to give them hope, but you also, you have to face the reality that we probably won’t be going back unless this right of recall legislation goes through. It’s heartbreaking to get those phone calls. And I know I’m not the only one that’s received them. I think we have organized over 550 people, which was pretty impressive.
Asyah Azize: Just to add to that, I had someone asking me to find out from human resources when we’re coming back because the mayor and the governor said that they’re opening up New York in July. So everybody thinks because New York is opening up that they’re getting their jobs back. Like it’s an automatic thing.
Anonymous: Before all of this, what were your experiences like working at Marriott? It sounds like you liked the job generally speaking?
Pete Dorton: Oh, we loved the job. I had a great time there.
Brian Richards: It’s a unique job because the restaurant’s in Times Square, it’s a tourist place. You get New Yorkers bringing relatives in for special occasions. You end up really bonding with these people in a really condensed period of time helping them on their vacation. I would like to think that when they go back to their homes, back to their lives, that they would remember the time they spent with us because generally it’s a big event for them.
Pete Dorton: Well, basically we were ambassadors for New York City. We told them the shows to go see and what to not see and gave them opinions on different restaurants, and nightlife and museums. And we developed relationships with a lot of the repeat guests. In 16 years, I have so many friends that I’ve gone and stayed at their homes in Europe just from meeting these people at this job. We love the job and we were all really good at what we did and that’s what’s sad. Now they’re going to bring in cheaper labor and inexperienced people that don’t really know what’s going on and it’s going to be really detrimental to the hotel in my opinion.
Anonymous: And what about back of house folks? What’s their experience like working there?
Asyah Azize: I remember for brunch, I started making Mickey Mouse pancakes for some kids and sure enough, like I saw that guy probably five times in the time that I was there. And he was like, “you know, I could stay wherever I wanted to, but I come back because you guys treat me like I’m family.” And that’s always the thing that was ingrained in us. Treat your guests like family and we’ll treat the employees like family too.
Pete Dorton: That’s the saddest part, for years that we worked there and even before I worked there, people wanted to get the union in and Marriott was very adamant about keeping the union out. They would have those union busting meetings where we’d have to go to these mandatory meetings and sit there and listen to how bad the union was for us. And then they would say, ‘oh, we’re taking care of you better than the union would. And we’re paying you comparable or better wages than the neighboring hotels.’ And then, when all this went down, there’s an article that the HTC had posted about how the Food and Beverage department was being sacrificed, and the remaining housekeepers were able to get a union because they were scared of what happened to us. So now they have won union representation and we’re out in the cold and there’s no support for us.
Anonymous: I’ve worked in hospitality for 10 years, and I know there’s those trainings where you really drink the Kool-Aid about the corporation and how they are going to take care of you. And it sounds like you all had a pretty good experience and sort of believed that when you first started working there.
How has this shifted your impression of who Marriott is to you and how they’re going to take care of you?
Brian Richards: I met David Marriott. And honestly believed that Marriott was just a different corporation. You hear all these things about corporations being a source of evil, that maximizing shareholder profit is their only purpose. But I always thought I worked at a different kind. They always said the key to Marriott’s success was, we take care of our employees, they take care of our customers, and our customers return. Maybe it was naive at the time, but I also happened to believe it. I changed my opinion because I realized that they used to tell us that it’s a different corporation, that they have a different philosophy, but it’s just kind of like lacquer on top that was convenient for them to say when it was in their interest, but now it’s no longer beneficial to them. So that just went out the window and it is just: get rid of them as cheaply as possible. So I have had a substantial transformation in my understanding of the company I used to work for.
Pete Dorton: Also we used to have employee appreciation parties all the time. Employee appreciation week. One year, in 2006 or 2007, Rihanna came and did a concert for us for an employee appreciation week. They lavished us with all these perks and then they also gave us a supplemental $15 a week in our paychecks for our retirement for no reason. And then it just started getting whittled away little by little. I think it was when Marriott’s international [operations] split and they have Host company now… and it’s just been detrimental ever since then.
Anonymous: I think Natalia working at a smaller restaurant and me working at a smaller hotel, employer appreciation is closer to like a pizza party. You know what I mean?
Natalia Tylim: I might actually feel appreciated if I got a Rihanna concert!
Asyah Azize: We would also get gift cards and trips to different Marriott locations. We had Christmas parties and they would be giving out tech gift cards and laptops. They would have us do a Ted Talk on how to make a mixed drink and you would get an extra $150 on your paycheck for that. And they had like that five-year and ten-year incentives to make you feel that you’re appreciated and wanted. It all went downhill when they started doing the whole “fresh bites” concept. I was in room dining and it went from table side with plates, to these black boxes where we’re just cooking food and reheating them in this magic toaster oven and sending it up to people. It was so impersonal and they found every little way to cut corners around that time. You can see it, because that was the first time they got rid of like an entire department and it became less about humans and more about, well, how can I make more money? But you still had that hope. We still had a job. We were still a family. And then [Covid] happens and you’re like “Well where the hell? Where’s the family? Where is the family in any of this crap?”
Pete Dorton: I’ve worked in many restaurants, small mom and pop restaurants especially, before I started at Marriott. And I remember we didn’t have the protections at those mom and pop restaurants and you could be working and the owner could just look at you funny and be like “I don’t like them, they’re done.” And they would fire you at the drop of a hat. So working for Marriott was such a great relief of like, wow, we have protection, even though we really didn’t have that protection, it was a false sense of security. So I don’t want us to come across as sounding ungrateful because we were able to have benefits, healthcare and a lot of mom and pop restaurant workers don’t have that, and it should be mandatory for everybody to have health insurance, especially restaurant workers, because we are the heart and soul of New York along with the theater, and most of us are actors and performers. So, you know, without us, the city would be nothing.
Natalia Tylim: One of the things that I’m thinking about listening to you all is what Naomi Klein talks about, about the “shock doctrine”, where a crisis is used as an opportunity to just completely dismantle any semblance of workers rights. We were talking before we started this meeting about independent small restaurants having a hiring crisis. There’s like a ‘labor shortage’ because nobody wants to work in them. You had a much more stable job in a lot of ways, those jobs are being completely dismantled and you have all these precarious jobs that people are reluctant to take for all kinds of reasons. It raises the question of how are we going to make sure that those jobs become more stable?
Pete Dorton: Well, it’s all about protection, for everyone, from mom and pop restaurants to corporations, and union or not, small restaurants, they need those protections. You guys know what it’s like to work at a small restaurant and have these crazy shifts, you do triples and you don’t get paid overtime. At the end of the day, you have money in your pocket from your tips, and the owners say, oh, look, how much money you made, but they didn’t pay it to me. You know, I was there to market your restaurant and the tips were people being grateful for my service. It’s really sad all the way around because I have so many friends that are out of work that are mom and pop restaurant workers, and nobody’s having a chance to go back yet. And now that we’re opening, what’s going to happen? Especially these big corporations, [they’ve] just thrown us out to fend for ourselves.
Natalia Tylim: It is interesting this idea of having stability on the job, it’s counterintuitive in the moment, but actually sometimes it’s worth more than a higher wage and we shouldn’t have to choose between those two things.
Pete Dorton: For years, if you went into a restaurant and you trailed and it was a mom and pop restaurant, and if it was a fit, you knew it was a fit. And if not, you just went to the next place and you found the perfect fit for you. And sometimes the money wasn’t that great, but the job was nice and you trusted the people and you felt good. So it was a trade-off and it shouldn’t be a trade-off. We should all be earning our worth, no matter what. And I would say that was the biggest demand of our fight, just treat us fairly. That’s all we’re asking. We are loyal to the company. We are loyal to these mom and pop restaurants that we work in. Where is our loyalty back? The right to recall opens up so many opportunities for everybody that has run up against terminations during the pandemic. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really apply to the small mom and pop restaurants, once again, and it should, but you know, one step at a time.
Anonymous: The bill has a minimum of $5 million in gross receipts [for a company to be covered under the law], right?
Pete Dorton: Yes, $5 million and more than 50 employees.
Anonymous: As Natalia said, a lot of restaurant workers in smaller restaurants, or even medium-sized restaurants have a very different experience than those of us who work in these hotels. There’s a lot of money in hotels and the restaurant sometimes is just there to attract the guests so they pay for the hotel rooms. And so it’s a lot harder for them to close. They sort of have to treat you better, or there’s incentive at least for them to treat you better particularly if they’re looking over their shoulder at the union possibly coming in.
So, what are your next steps in terms of pushing for the right to recall or pushing for the severance? And can one of you talk a little bit about how the press got a hold of this probe that the state attorney general was doing?
Pete Dorton: Corey Johnson is doing the agenda for this Civil Service & Labor Committee and I’m going to testify, and just ask “What’s happening?” …So that is one route. We are in constant communication and every day, all of us are sending emails and phone calls to every city council member saying, please help us pass right to recall once it’s brought up. This doesn’t only affect hotels and restaurants and clubs. It’s bars. It’s the stadium workers. It’s the Broadway bartenders. I mean, there’s a lot of people it covers. Musicians. So if the right to recall would go through, that’d be great. California has made it a state law, which is amazing. New York City is a progressive city; why do we not have this after Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, all these cities are leading it? Right to recall is something that we are fighting until the end.
We are pushing, and we need so much support from everybody and unfortunately we’re just not getting enough press. We have had a CNBC, they did a little blurb because we are having trouble with the ARPA, the American Rescue Plan Act to sign up for COBRA. And that’s a whole other issue. We have been fighting that and we still don’t have anything in writing from the corporation saying that we have COBRA. And I myself have a pacemaker defibrillator and I’m not going to my doctor. And a lot of my coworkers are not going to the doctor because they can’t afford to get a bill …Our lawyer will probably be discussing things with their lawyers. And then, the attorney general, hopefully, there might be an investigation, who knows?
Copley Marriott in Boston, they’re actually boycotting the Marriott. So I was able to this morning reach out to one of the union people there and now I’m in contact with them. So we’re trying to get together, compare notes and try to fight this together. It’s just a lot of legwork and honestly, Asyah and Brian can tell you, I mean, this is like a full-time job for us and we’re not getting paid. You know, thank God for our unemployment, but I mean, it’s crazy how nine people can go up against a corporation like this in such a short amount of time and see the results that we’re getting, but it’s still not enough.
Asyah Azize: Every system that we have at this point is just not working whatsoever. You know, every single government service, it’s like nothing works and this pandemic has shown people that things don’t work. They need to be changed. They need to be fixed.
Pete Dorton: And the thing is, we all have careers as restaurant workers or hotel workers. These are actual careers. You know, people think we’re just actors and it’s a temporary job. No, we treat these as careers and maybe it’s a privileged thing that we think that we have a career and how can we go from a career to Medicaid?…See, with myself, I have a defibrillator pacemaker and I have a certain doctor that I’ve been with since 2004 and I cannot get rid of him because he knows me and he knows my condition and that’s why my Cobra is so important. And then after the ARPA, September 30th, I’m going to be without health insurance. And so what am I going to do then? I want to sign up for something, but what are our options? Honestly, I feel like I’m a law student now I’ve learned so much stuff and, and I want to run for city council now. I’m really thinking about it because it’s just amazing the stuff that needs to be done for the city.
Asyah Azize: I know how to do campaign work now.
Pete Dorton: You know, the one thing that I would say is out of all of this we have found that a lot of people look at restaurant workers or hotel workers as uneducated, and maybe not as smart as we should be, and so maybe [the boss] could get away with things. And now I’m finding, you know, there’s nights when we’ve all been standing around in the restaurant and complaining about this or that. But I think now we’ve realized you have to organize, you have to stick together, you have to stand up and say, no, this isn’t right. And I do have a voice…. And I’m blown away at my coworkers, you know, like they are just surprising me more and more, daily. And I think that’s something that we should all learn from this, that even in the small mom and pop restaurants, get together, stand up for yourself and just say no, we’re not going to do this anymore. You know, we have rights, we have a voice. And I think that might bring a little more respect to all of us.
by German Lara, (he/him), Tongva land, Los Angeles CA
I can recall the warehouses full of dust and mice. I was one of the new workers from the temp agency sharing lunch breaks with a coworker who was soon discarded after suffering an injury at work. He was let go after 30 years of service. Sitting in the dusty break room looking around the room as if he was going to miss it. He was broken, defeated. I could see and feel his pain vividly.
With no worker protections, even a doctor’s note stating his illness was caused by years of inhaling dust on the job, he had no defense. It was over before it started. That was the last time I saw him.
Under the current law, if the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) doesn’t take your case, you have no chance of fighting your case yourself.
As workers, particularly the descendants of immigrants, we think work is life. We think work is everything, and with it all things are achieved. But with that comes the belief of “it is what it is.”
The belief that we do not and cannot have more bargaining power to increase our wages and have better hours. In addition to all the benefits and amenities a worker rightfully deserves.
It is untrue that nothing will change, we can have everything!
I was born in California on a visa pass that my mother was able to obtain. I became, by default, an American citizen.
As a citizen, I quickly saw the advantages that I had over my extended family, other neighborhood kids, and even my parents. The privilege appeared stupid to me. My mom beat time and flew herself across man-made borders; I got lucky.
But, I felt cursed.
I started working at a young age, mostly alongside my father on home improvement projects. The first official job I had was when I was 15 years old. Subway.
It was there that I first witnessed worker exploitation on the job. Management would pretend to “hire” my friends and train them. They gave them a day of work or two but never actually employed them past that. Under this guise of “training,” they successfully pulled this off two weekends in a row; all during rushes. They normalized this under the guise of “you just don’t work hard enough” and “school is not for you! Work!”
After those years of what seemed like endless, fruitless and empty employment, I resorted to temp work through a job agency. It was then that I got my first taste of large scale, contract, “legal” exploitation of workers.
As a young college student maneuvering life, sleeping in cars and crashing at friend’ places, I was so worried about hitting that “homeless” stage we, as Americans, fear but feel so far from. We just call it “rocking ‘n rolling” although it’s a lot quieter than that. And lonelier.
With rent due, bills and debt piling up, my only hope of employment was in the kitchen world. Doing what seemed to be the only job that would hire me.
There was an assumption of, “Oh yeah, I was born here, so I’m not going to get screwed as much as my undocumented coworkers.”
That couldn’t have been more untrue.
The back of the house is a wild west of an industry. It’s not a lawless land, but rather an authoritarian stronghold. The owners, chefs, business people, who co-opted legal ways of exploitation and who accost their workers at even the slightest hint of wrongdoing. This gritty underworld hides behind a facade of the “independent” or “family-run” business. These jobs are a hotbed of wage theft and labor exploitation.
Every time I have tried to organize in a workplace – whether it be done casually or openly – it has failed. I had to learn to live with the exploitation. There “was no way around it”, as my Mom often says.
Many times, those organizing attempts were stifled by fellow workers.
Workers with more years at a particular job or that particular industry.
Workers with an individualistic sense of pride in their work, but an anti-organizing outlook.
Workers who believed we had the power, but we would lose our employment through uprising or walking out.
Fear. Fear of losing income.
For me, it was my fear of returning to an unstable place, back to couch surfing and not having a home or room of my own.
And so, like a boxer taking punches, we eat up each hit with the hope of survival.
But, there is hope. The PRO Act can change the playing field and challenge the tactics the employing class uses at its leisure against the working class.
It will give workers teeth.
With the PRO Act, workers will be better equipped to present their cases more immediately and effectively, while closing loopholes bosses have used for years. It will be the biggest policy protection for workers in decades and massively update the National Labor Relations Act.
It’s these types of direct actions, campaigns such as the PRO Act made of a coalition of working class movements fighting to pass into law meaningful protections, that can bring about the progress that we collectively need.
The Restaurant Organizing Project held a national educational event on May 3rd in celebration of May Day.
Restaurants are run by immigrant workers. The question of how labor interacts with demands for legalization and against xenophobia are of fundamental importance to any effort to transform the industry.
What follows is a transcript of a talk given by Justin Akers-Chacón on immigrant worker militancy, historically the leading edge of the transformative labor movement in the United States.
Justin Akers-Chacón is an activist, labor unionist, and educator living in the San Diego-Tijuana border region. He is a Professor of Chicana/o History at San Diego City College. His other books include No One is Illegal (with Mike Davis) and Radicals in the Barrio.
Thank you for inviting me to be here to talk about this important subject. I’m not a restaurant worker, [but] I worked in two restaurants before. So I’m in solidarity with this important work. What I wanted to do today was just share a little bit of information about the immigrant rights movement, and its transformative capacity and touch on a few points that I think might be relevant for organizing today. I live in a city called Chula Vista, which is the main city between San Diego and Tijuana on the border. On May Day 2021, we had a car caravan, probably about 200 cars, that went through different sites, including the Otay Mesa Detention Center, a private, for-profit facility administered by ICE, but run by a corporation called Core Civic, which houses about 700 people who committed no crime, but are the victims of a system of repression. [The] car caravan [also] went to the San Diego Convention Center, which currently is caging about 1450 migrant and refugee children. This was just a couple days ago.
May Day here in San Diego is an important day because of May 1, 2006. Because of that, here we are 15 years later, still doing big actions that call out the need to fight for workers rights. And a big component of that is solidarity and justice for immigrants and refugees and the need for legalization. My union, the teachers union, [has] a big contingent and the local Labor Council mobilizes hundreds of people to come out and stand in solidarity together, including for immigrants. That’s one of the legacies of the mass movement here in San Diego in 2006.
On May Day 2006, there was an unprecedented mass mobilization of workers across the country. Unprecedented in the sense that it was anywhere from about three to five million people who came [out] explicitly around a workers’ demand: legalization for millions of undocumented workers. [An] explicitly political demand. It spread across approximately 700 cities. And not just major cities, but small towns across the country. [In] Los Angeles, a conservative estimate would be [that] about 1.3 million people came out to the streets throughout the city and effectively shut down the second largest city in the United States for the whole day. And didn’t just shut it down because everybody stopped working, but literally every major street and boulevard and thoroughfare was wall to wall people.
There were different demands that fit into this larger demand: legalization now, or amnesty now. This is an important thing to understand in terms of organizing. In US labor history, this demand has explicitly meant “unions now.” The right to form, the right to join a union.
Why did several million people come out? Why was it so explosive? In some ways it was organized, [but] in many other ways it was a spontaneous outpouring.
How was it organized? In 1986, the US government passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, [of] which one of the major provisions was amnesty. [The] provision allowed undocumented people who meet who met the requirements, at that time very inclusive, to legalize their status and become citizens. About 3 million people between 1987 and 1992 became citizens. During that period of time, the mid 80s [through] the mid 90s, there was a massive expansion of unions. Primarily unions that immigrant workers went into, in sectors that were [already] unionized where immigrant workers were concentrated. Millions of people become legalized, move into the US, [join unions] and become union organizers.
Between 1992 and 2003, there was a coordinated effort by many unions to actually go out and organize immigrant workers into unions. Mobilized workers who now have the protection of the union and the protection of citizens. Over that period of time, immigrant workers spread into many different industries. We see a transition away from certain industries being concentrated to other industries now reflecting more of an immigrant workforce.
In the late 1970s, with the expansion of the immigrant workforce in several industries, labor organizers in the Southwest began to recognize that workers coming into the steel industry [and] farm labor, were actually more prone to organize unions than their US counterparts. In many cases [they] actually organized their own independent unions. Some unions [realized] the importance of recognizing the demographic shifts in the workforce [and] began to actually incorporate undocumented workers into their unions. Because of this, we see a trajectory of more unions shifting towards organizing immigrant workers. The more those [unions] grow, the more they begin to put pressure on the rest of the union movement. That the future of the labor movement is actually organizing immigrant workers. From a historical standpoint, it’s always been that way. It’s never been different. Immigrants are at the front echelons at every juncture of the class struggle in this country.
By 2000, the AFL-CIO had officially changed. As long as it’s been in existence the AFL had been anti-immigrant, even though it built up its first ranks primarily around immigrant workers. And when they merged with the CIO in 1955, the CIO went from pro-immigrant union organizing to capitulating to [the] anti-immigrant position. From 1955 to 2000, the AFL-CIO actually lined up with the right-wing on calling for the exclusion of immigrants. But in 2000, the AFL-CIO announced, “we want another legalization, we’re going to call for another amnesty” and allocated resources for immigrant worker-led union locals to actually organize something called the immigrant workers Freedom Ride. A national campaign, modeled on the civil rights movement, of car caravans going city to city, culminating in New York in a final rally of tens of thousands calling for a new amnesty. The largest union federation in the world, calling for another amnesty against the US government, at that point not entertaining one.
[In] the mid 90s, undocumented workers and US born workers, in industries where there were both represented typically made similar wages. By the early 2000s, the US capitalist class, although there were always divisions within politics over implementation, [have] the general sentiment [that] US economy can no longer afford amnesties. Amnesties are bad for business. In 2003, while the US labor movement was calling for a new amnesty, the Bush administration took legalization off the table and put forth the Guestworker Program instead.
The Freedom Rides represented the potential for there to be another legalization, another surge of people into unions, and, by legalization, a boost in wages across the board for legalized workers, US born workers and even undocumented workers who didn’t qualify for the legalization. [When] you have a surge of people joining unions, [it becomes much harder] to subdivide by citizenship status.
Between 2003 and 2006, we see a complete about face. The Republican Party became openly anti-immigrant, espousing more criminalization, closing the border, etc. In the legislative session that year, Congress, controlled by Republicans in the House, introduced the Sensenbrenner-King Bill, which would effectively make it a felony to be undocumented. The parameters of debate became legalization or being made into a felon.
[Two weeks after May Day 2006] the Bush administration started the process of organizing workplace raids. Where I live in San Diego, we went from the largest mass movement in San Diego history, a massive flourishing of organizing, to shifting to defend restaurant workers at the French Bakery in Pacific Beach in San Diego, and spent six months defending about 30 workers who had worked there for 10 to 20 years. ICE came in with automatic weapons and arrested them for committing no crime, a shift in the federal government towards repressing workers in the workplace. These same workers were part of the May 1st action, [part of] a trend of targeting politicized workers.
We see the shift from amnesty to criminalization. And we see an emphasis then shifting towards getting the Democratic Party in office to pass legalization. The campaign promise of 2008, the campaign promise of 2012, and the campaign promise of 2021. All three were abandoned almost immediately once the Democrats achieved office.
But immigrant workers, even in a state of atomization [and] disorganization, in many cases still have concentrated power in some sectors of the economy, have continuously expressed opposition in various forms since 2006, and will be at the forefront of the next wave of labor organizing and labor struggle in the years to come.
by Paul KD
Support The Girls, the 2018 film by Andrew Bujalski, is the most realistic look at service work and revolt in recent years. The sheer indignity of most work has long been a focus of the independent filmmaker Andrew Bujalski’s career, since his beginnings with 2002’s Funny Ha Ha. While he has exclusively worked in fiction, Bujalski was trained in Harvard’s documentary program and has always shown an eye for the mundane. His protagonists’ lives usually revolve around their work, or lack of it, from Marnie’s employment at a temp agency in Funny Ha Ha to Kat’s personal trainer gig in 2015’s Results. These jobs are always degrading to various degrees, and seem to only lead to the characters becoming further lost in their lives.
Support The Girls revolves around the employees of Double Whammies, a knock-off Hooters in a desolate section of freeway somewhere in suburban Austin. Its main character, Lisa, played by Regina Hall, is the manager of the restaurant as well as the only one able to hold it together. The rules of the restaurant are explained as Lisa interviews new staff. While she takes pain to describe it as a normal, “mainstream” work environment, we can see problems arise. The chef gave the code to the safe to his cousin, who has gotten stuck in the ceiling. The restaurant is also threatened by the arrival of the chain Mancave, and the owner has barely concealed anger issues. As the day goes on, Lisa attempts to put out the several fires that arrive, before they inevitably snowball into catastrophe.
Beyond the day-to-day issues that arise, we can see that there are deeper problems at Double Whammies. The owner enforces a “Rainbow Policy” that bans more than one Black waitress on the floor at once. The customers include creeps who take the opportunity to ogle and cat-call, as well as lots of off-duty cops, which Lisa is proud to advertise. Once Lisa announces her departure, the rest of the staff decide that they have had enough and start causing mayhem. Danyelle knocks out the cable and proceeds to get the off-duty cop mad enough to force everyone out.
When the movie ends, we see that the workers are mostly in the same position that they were at before. The whole crew finds themselves applying for jobs at the new Mancave position, which entails exactly the same work as Double Whammies, just with a bigger legal department, as the interviewer explains. One of our slogans in the Restaurant Organizing Project is that “your next job will suck, too,” and that is clearly the case here. This is a pretty different ending than most films about labor. There are no big, violent strikes or picket lines, and no one gets a Hollywood ending. Instead, the movie ends with the Double Whammies crew drinking on the roof of the Mancave site, before all of them let out a primal scream to release all of their frustrations at once.
Is this scream the beginnings of a collective solidarity? Or is it just the last gasp of frustration before the workers go back to their jobs? The film ends here, but in real life the struggle continues. This spring, every time I saw a report of staff walking out of a short-staffed restaurant and leaving signs mocking the boss, I thought of Support the Girls. I hope those workers got to scream, too.
Peet’s is part of a wave of coffee shop organizing that has been rolling across the US since at least 2019, including wins, losses, and draws at stores like Cake Life in Philadelphia, Stone Creek in Milwaukee, and Colectivo which has stores in three cities.
I caught up with Charlie Ulch, a 24 year-old Downers Grove native, to find out more about the Peet’s workers campaign. Charlie has been working at Peet’s for five years, primarily at locations in Downers Grove and downtown Chicago.
[The conversation has been edited for brevity and style]
How did the walkout/strike come about? What were some of the things leading up to it, and what were some of the things that y’all have tried that led to doing a bigger action like a strike?
There’s a few different things. In the city they have sick pay and hazard pay, and that was paid out to all the employees without their consent.
when we came back no one really had any leftover funds available in case they did catch COVID, or anything like that.
So, we were trying to get back some of the sick pay that we were given out. On top of that, we were also trying to get an extra $2 an hour in hazard pay for working during the pandemic, having to constantly interact with the public, who may or may not be COVID contagious That was one of our big asks. Another ask was having a seat at the table, just being able to have a direct line to management in terms of the proceedings, and going ons of what happened in our store, having a say in the process when it comes to reopening and precautions necessary. Basically, a union or bargaining rights. We were looking to have a seat at the table.
Going into the pandemic, were there already issues at the stores that were being floated, things you were looking to get solved, but weren’t happening that led to the action, or do you feel like it was sparked mainly by the pandemic?
I feel like a lot of that was caused by the pandemic. I feel like a lot of these issues kind of existed before, but there wasn’t really any stress on people that made them recognize it. So I feel like the pandemic kind of woke people up to the issues that were going on in the store in terms of hours and labor and things like that. And then just kind of like exacerbated the problems to a point where we didn’t really have any other choice I feel.
When y’all sort of got backed into that corner was reaching out to organizers the first thing that you did or did y’all take a lot of steps before you got to the point of being like, ‘Alright, let’s talk to someone about trying to get organized and help from the outside’?
Yeah, we were actually super lucky because it started mostly at the East 8th location. The way we were coming back [from quarantine] wasn’t the best, and a lot of people were kind of upset with how hours were being distributed and the way Peet’s was handling the pandemic. I think it was a coworker of mine who said that they knew someone who organized, and that they would reach out, because you know we were talking about union stuff, but we didn’t really know how to. And, luckily, they had this contact. They just kind of linked us up, and that’s kind of how things started. It started real slow, too. At first it started with just a simple letter to corporate with a little petition saying, ‘hey here’s the things we want,’ and hoping that we could get it.
When they didn’t really acknowledge that, or give us the things we were asking for we were kind of left with no choice but to try to escalate things.
Because no one likes walking out. No one likes going out on strike. So we were kind of forced into that situation, right.
You said it started relatively slowly, and I’m assuming y’all met a few times. How receptive were your coworkers at the different stores to working on this project?
There was kind of a range of thoughts, really. A lot of people were on board, but there was definitely a decent amount of people who was just really nervous about doing it. They were scared that, you know, they could face some kind of retaliation, or that it would affect their ability to, I guess, move up within the company. And so, it took a lot of talking to and discussion to let them know that things would be okay, and, you know, they didn’t really have anything to fear, and that they could join us and it would be in their best interest. But it was definitely difficult, especially since, because of the way things operated, it was hard to get a lot of other stores on board, or to even know what was going on. [The company was] able to kind of keep a tight lid on what was going on at the various stores. When we finally did reach out to more of those locations they basically said that they heard rumblings, but they weren’t really sure what was going on. They heard some talk of a union. So it was a lot of clearing up the air about what was actually going on, and dispelling various rumors and misinformation that, you know, store managers and things like that were kind of spreading.
Luckily, we were able to reach out to other coworkers. I actually kind of ended up driving around to other stores, and just popped in to give my fellow coworkers information and phone numbers of our organizer and stuff like that. So it definitely did take a little bit of on the ground action, just driving around and reaching out, you know, as face to face as you can nowadays.
It’s interesting, and I think very smart, that you went around to specific stores to talk to people. Did you have any issues figuring out how to approach it? That’s come up in some of the organizing discussions in the Restaurant Organizing Project national group. What’s the best way to approach people if you’re interested in reaching out to them about organizing? Should you just go up to the stores, or do you have to pass them things secretly so they don’t feel like they’re getting in trouble? I’m wondering how you approached that?
Unfortunately, there’s no one answer. It’s all really dependent on the situation. I was lucky because, you know, it’s fellow Peets workers. So I showed up, and I wore a Peets shirt so they knew I was one of them, and, you know, talked to them and stuff in person since we already kind of had that initial connection. I would say if you’re trying to reach out to other people [outside your own workplace] it’s best to kind of take stock of who you know, and reach out to them first. We have done some cold calling before with our organizer, and that does kind of work. But, you’ve got to see what works for you. What I found is just going to a store, and starting off with simple conversation like ‘hey, how’s it going, how’s things in the store? What’s your work life like,’ and slowly bring up the fact that you have someone that they can reach out to if they want and if they have any questions or want to learn more. I found that works. In my personal opinion, I feel like people are just more receptive to those that they know, rather than strangers. I always find that when it comes to organizing it’s always important to have a people first view. Keeping it friendly, and keeping in mind that they’re people with lives. Getting into that relatability, you know.
Yeah, for sure. You mentioned cold calling people. When you did that, how did you get phone numbers? Was there a directory or something?
Kind of. Each Peet’s store has contact info of the various people. When you work in the city, like I did, there’s a bunch of Peet’s. You always end up covering a shift here and there so you kind of pick up people’s numbers along the way because people will always be like, ‘Oh you’re looking for shifts. You can come to this store.’ People are like, ‘Hey, we’re looking for people to cover a shift here.’ I ended up picking up numbers along the way. A couple times I checked the list in the back of stores of people’s numbers and stuff, and just tried reaching out that way. But, for the most part, it was a lot of just numbers I already had laying around, and reaching out to them.
Is Peet’s like Starbucks, where the company owns most if not all of its stores? Or is it set up more like a franchise where franchise owners own individual or multiple stores in an area or region or whatever, but they’re not “technically” a part of the corporate structure, even though they are obviously connected?
Yeah, for the most part stores are owned by Peet’s corporate. There aren’t really any franchises. The one exception is that there’s some Peets that are in Capital One Banks. They’re not really connected to Peet’s corporate. Those are more franchises. But, for the most part, every Peet’s store that’s not in a Capital One is owned by corporate.
How does that affect how y’all approach organizing? Do you think it makes it easier because there’s maybe less individuals to target, and there’s a very clear line of authority? Or is it more difficult because they actually have a lot more stringent control over every different shop?
I‘d say that it makes it somewhat easier, in my opinion, knowing that everything’s kind of connected because we all have the same district manager, we kind of have the same idea of how the store is laid out. In terms of, like, corporate control I wouldn’t say that it was super stringent. But, I feel like the fact that we all have the same level of knowledge in the company, and the same kind of awareness of what’s going on, it makes things a bit easier because of it.
When you started this process was anyone in the store aware of some of the past organizing efforts in the city like around coffee shops? Folks with the IWW tried to organize a bunch of Starbucks shops. Recently Colectivo did their election.
I don’t know about everyone else, but I would say that I definitely wasn’t really aware of anything. And I’m pretty sure that a lot of other people weren’t either. For the most part I would say no one was really aware of what was going on at, like, Colectivo or what was happening a couple years ago.
Trying to unionize ourselves really put us into the loop of what was going on around the city, and definitely woke us up to what was going on around us, and plugged us into the labor movement at large around the city.
You mentioned you had picked up shifts for people at other stores. I was talking to a friend recently about how helping out people at work helps people with organizing. In our experience it’s been the case that the people that are really successful tend to be people that are already pretty good at their jobs, because it allows them to go out and help people. Those people in turn are trusted within the workplace. So, when someone who’s really good at their job says, “Oh, this is kind of fucked up, maybe we should organize around it,” I think people tend to listen. I was wondering if you’ve had experience around that.
I would say that’s definitely a fair assessment. A lot of the people I know that are involved in the organizing are people who I would consider to be fairly well respected and fairly experienced at Peet’s. A lot of them are shift leads and things like that, and, you know, have a decent amount of experience with the company.
It helped was having those experienced people on board because it definitely set an example for everyone else. Once you kind of get those people on board, and everyone sees that it’s not just a bunch of lazy people trying to get more money, it’s people who just care, really care, about their job, and just want to make it a better place for everyone.
T.hat really changes people’s opinion and gets them on board. It kind of dispels a lot of that misinformation about how unions are lazy when they see that the people who are organizing the union are some of the hardest workers at their store or in their company.
From what you’ve seen, what are some of the primary challenges around trying to get better conditions for the people in your stores?
One of the biggest challenges I would say is an unsuredness. Basically, a lot of people are like, ‘oh, I don’t want to rock the boat. I don’t want to cause trouble. I don’t want to make people upset.’ We hear a lot like, ‘Oh, well, things aren’t really that bad. There’s people who had it worse. I don’t think this is really necessary.’ I’d say that has been a big challenge. People not respecting the value of their own work and labor and thinking that they don’t deserve things like a union or, you know, bargaining or anything like that, that’s kind of been the biggest challenge. People devaluing themselves in their work I would say.
What do you feel like has been the best thing to combat that?
The best way to combat that, I would say, would be to really just talk to your coworkers. I was talking to an organizer a few days ago with the Fight for 15, his name’s Brendan, and he just kind of cued me in to a really good insight about organizing and just talking to people in general. It’s about the human connection. It’s about just talking to people, and letting them find the answer for themselves. Don’t go in there trying to argue or debate or fight people on why to have a union. Just talk to them about the problems they’re having. Not even problems with their work, their life in general. And then, once they explain that to you, you can just kind of be like, ‘Oh, well, you’re having this problem? Well, you know, if you wanted to get rid of that problem a union would be a good way to do it.’ Unfortunately it’s not easy. It takes a lot of talking, a lot of conversations. It’s not something that happens overnight. So just talking to people constantly, all the time. Just relate to them.
What can people inside and outside the city do to help out?
I think one of the best things is to follow the Fight for 15 and Fight for 15 Chicago on social media. That’s how they put out a lot of information about upcoming actions, and what’s going on. If you want to show out to an action just follow those places to find out, and then just show up. Other than that if people want to get involved, just reach out to their local organizer. I feel like more unions and collective organizing is better for everyone. So if you help organize your store it helps us organize our store. Other than that, you could always write emails to corporate saying, ‘hey we support our workers right to unionize’ and stuff like that, and just letting Peets know that the public stands with the workers on this one. That’s always a good option.
Cool. Well, thank you so much again for taking the time to chat with me today. It’s been really helpful. It sounds like y’all are doing like great work, and I’m really excited to hear what comes out of it.
Restaurant labor conditions have officially entered “the discourse.”
Arguments back-and-forth over an alleged “labor shortage” has persisted as the topic of the day for over a month now, and seemingly overrun Economics Twitter, pop culture memeing and the opinion columns of most major news outlets.
The background is by now well established: In April, with vaccination becoming widely available and public health mandates lifting, owners of food service establishments large and small decided it was time for restaurants to come roaring back to life. The workers they had laid off a year prior seemed to disagree.
As news articles interviewing bereft CEOs and images of signs in shop windows decrying that, “people do not want to work” proliferated, the sides formed.
On the one hand, a contingent of business owners and conservative politicians claiming the continuation of unemployment benefits has removed any incentive to return to work. On the other, labor friendly economists and left-of-center commentators identifying a host of reasons workers might be holding off: COVID safety, a lack of vaccination, continually depressed tips, lack of access to childcare, or the simple fact that if you are facing a shortage of labor then you should probably react by increasing wages rather than throwing a fit.
The position of the editors of this publication should likely come as no surprise to anyone who has found their way here. We do not consider this a shortage of labor. Many specialists have explained why, both in economic terms and in covering the myriad reasons people, rightly, are looking for a way out of the industry.
What is happening is a naked attempt by industry owners and bosses to regain their former economic stranglehold on the lives of a workforce that has been granted just enough breathing room to try and escape. After a year where being a line cook was suddenly one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, tips plummeted, and harassment skyrocketed, it isn’t surprising that service workers sought to remain afloat without setting foot on a restaurant floor. But, rather than raise wages across the board, lobbyists and lawmakers are seeking to simply starve out as many bodies as possible by slashing unemployment.
All this and more has been said. Is there anything left to debate as workers in the field? Beyond higher wages and reasonable expectations of a social safety net?
Perhaps one comment is, why are we only willing to engage in this debate on the terms set by those who want us to work as much as possible for as little as possible? Why is the response to industry workers being called “lazy” a deluge of articles that begin something like, “actually, workers want to work but…” As though we must defend some magical, ideal value of work-in-and-of-itself, as much as we defend our basic right not to starve, not contract an airborne disease, to demand dignity.
It’s easy for a corporate lobbyist to take for granted the fundamental value of sitting down for a minute. Or a year. Of doing nothing. Of rest.
Does anyone who has worked in a restaurant for any length of time really think laziness is an issue? In an industry where people regularly go two weeks without a day off, work every holiday and birthday, take one ten minute smoke break in a ten hour shift, eat the remains of family meal over a trash can in the loading dock, come into work sick or bleeding or with a day old fryer burn that took them to the hospital, maybe the issue is not, “why won’t we work” but why won’t we stop working? Why is the first holiday season many restaurant workers have had off in years due, not to a well deserved break and family time, but to a virus induced crisis?
We should be able to ask for more than a higher paycheck in return for going back to work. Including the ability to choose how much we work and when. For many who managed to get and stay on unemployment insurance over the last year, this is the first paid time off in their lives. For some it’s the first extended time off in years.
What is stopping us from holding on to that value as, for one reason or another, we slowly trickle back to our old jobs? If food workers in Charlotte and Austin, not to mention workers in nearly every other country in the world, can demand paid time off, why can’t we all?
As an aside, we pushed our publishing deadline this month back a week. We had nothing to do, and we enjoyed not doing it.
‘Tis impossible to be sure of anything but Death and Taxes, but any restaurant worker will tell you the second half of that statement might not be so true. From unpredictable wages for tipped workers to impossible-to-navigate unemployment insurance, restaurant workers have long had to deal with their fair share of fiscal uncertainty.
Molly Kivi, of Medford, Mass., hopes to change that. “I want to show a bunch of lawmakers, ‘Hey, it’s possible to take care of people first,’” Kivi explained in a Zoom interview from her kitchen table.
Kivi has a lifetime of experiencing firsthand the pain of dealing with an improperly instituted unemployment system. Her father worked in an industry that relied on seasonal unemployment, and her early exposure to the UI process inspired her to study accounting, with the goal of working in tax reform. She has also worked as a bartender and event planner, and continued to do so when she became disillusioned with the realities of working as an accountant.
“I love restaurants,” Kivi said. “Restaurants are full of people that can feel, and can think and collectively work together. We understand how to spot opportunity, and how to see a problem, work around it and come up with the solution really fast. As a restaurant person, you have to practice this every single day, while understanding how to connect with people.”
Then, as with 2.4 million million of other restaurant employees, Kivi found herself unemployed in March 2020. However, her tax reform background, previous experience with the UI system and empathetic problem-solving skills honed as a restaurant worker made her uniquely prepared to meet the moment.
“This was one of those times where a lot of people are going to experience that pain and suffering that I was so aware of. I needed to step up to the plate and I had to be that person to just start researching this and start, like alarming the emergency bell, knowing that this is going to be a problem.”
If you read that sentence and thought um, what? You are not alone! Kivi patiently walked me through the unemployment insurance tax structure in Massachusetts:
“There’s a pot of money. To get money into it, employers pay a tax levied on their employee’s salaries. Now, out of that pot of money, people receive benefit payments when they become unemployed, and those payments are called benefit payments. Currently, the tax that fills up that trust fund is regressive in nature, which means that those that have less money are taxed at a higher effective tax rate. The taxable wage base is $15,000. So, what happens is any employee, whether that employee is being paid $30,000 a year, or whether they’re being paid $150,000 a year, only the first $15,000 of that of their salary is being taxed. That means that this pot of money is being filled up by the most vulnerable of businesses and by the most vulnerable of employees.
On the other end, when you receive unemployment, the benefit calculation is a flat 40% after taxes of the claimants’ salary. This type of benefit calculation for the lowest wage earners, that aren’t even making a living wage, cuts their purchase power even more significantly.”
What Kivi’s campaign aims to do is help the most vulnerable paying into and receiving unemployment benefits. If the whole purpose of a social program is to prevent people from entering the poverty cycle, looking at it holistically will make sure those who are closest to poverty won’t be unduly burdened by effectively paying a higher rate, while simultaneously receiving a lesser amount of money. A worker making $30,000 a year would currently only be eligible for benefits for a salary of $18,000, whereas one making $90,000 would be eligible for $54,000. It’s easy to see how the regressive nature hurts those making less.
“You’re looking at a math problem, and to know how to answer the problem, you have to know all the constraints,” Kivi went on to add. “If we solve this math problem in an equitable manner, we’re all actually happy.”
She understands that there’s more to upending the exploitative nature of capitalism than simply plugging in numbers. At this point in the interview, Kivi looks down and becomes quiet.
“May I say something that can be a little triggering to some people?” she asks hesitantly. I assure her she can go on if she feels comfortable.
“I know of two suicides. People who had issues with getting their benefit payments. Because the administrative burdens, and because the payments were too low, it was overwhelming. The state wasn’t there for them. They reached out for help, and help didn’t come.
“I think the system is built on oppression. I think that hiding information is necessary for oppression to fester,” Kivi added, her voice growing stronger. “One of the reasons why I am opening up paperwork for a 501(c)(4) is to take that power for the little guy, because there is a vacuum in the market. A lot of people don’t have time to dig into tax law.”
Kivi has started a social welfare organization to this end. Her goals extend beyond the immediate need to restructure the unemployment benefits system and include educating small business owners and workers to drive civic engagement. Kivi has interacted with lawmakers throughout this process, and she credits her hospitality background as instrumental in her success.
“I have to think like, ‘okay, I have to connect with so many different people, like, business leaders, lobbyists, lawmakers, workers, unemployed families, young, old, and everybody. Everybody’s coming from a different perspective, and everybody’s looking out for themselves.’ It’s shown me how to connect more with people and that we all just want a common goal: we want to be happy, be fed and feel safe.”
During this process, however, Kivi noticed that many lawmakers did not have answers to her questions. “I realized that they don’t understand the laws that they’re voting on, which is scary. It kind of freaks me out when people in charge don’t know the rules. Because I’m like, how is society functioning? Oh wait, it’s on the backs of the worker.” She likens the process to a restaurant that doesn’t have a system in place for communicating 86’d items.
Creative problem solving comes naturally to Kivi, who also points out ways that undocumented workers, who make up 10% of the restaurant industry of the restaurant industry, could have received benefit payments. “They need and deserve their benefit payments. If their taxes are collected they should be eligible for benefits.” She explains that currently, benefit payments are based on social security numbers, not tax information. States are incentivized to follow statues through grants given by the federal government. “If we, as a state, decided hey, we want to take care of people, we want to make sure that people paying into the system are getting the benefits,” the state could simply refuse the federal grant.
Kivi is working to make sure the concept of hospitality and taking care of the guest extends to the worker as well.
She has set up a website to collect stories from Massachusetts residents who have received UI payments and get their advice on how the funds should be distributed. Kivi wants input because she freely admits she doesn’t know all the answers. “Nobody knows all the answers. I want this to be a model of how people get more engaged with the legislative process, because it should be coming from the ground up.”
Unfortunately, these laws do not apply to all restaurant workers; For those working in hotels, events centers and some airport concessionaires, these legal protections could provide a remedy. And for the rest of us, they can serve as inspiration for organizing our industry into a more just and equitable one.
For instance, if our social-media-using friend in the previous scenario was a sauté cook in a hotel restaurant in California, state law says that they should have received notice from their employer (whether via text, email or mail) in a language known to them that their previous position was now available. The laws would allow them a specified number of days to respond (up to 10 per Oakland law); if they didn’t respond, the employers would be free to move on to the next qualified candidate, which might be another laid-off employee. Only when these avenues are exhausted can the employer then fill the position with new workers. But what happens when a hotel restaurant that previously employed 25 people now only has the need for 10? The employer must offer previously-held positions based on seniority. This is ostensibly to protect workers from discrimination and favoritism.
Some of the laws also stipulate that subcontractors are included too; so if the Dunkin Donuts in the Baltimore airport subcontracts out their workforce, those workers would need to be given priority in hiring as well. Other stipulations may include length of employment prior to the pandemic and/or extending the same protections to the laid-off employees if the business was sold. Enforcement is generally limited to levying fines, most of which are minimal in scope.
It should also be noted that workplaces can choose to reverify their recalled employee’s I-9 documentation (identity and employment authorization) or re-run E-Verify, and although it is technically not required, it is also technically allowed. This process, which could potentially lead to immigrant workers being denied jobs they previously held, is something to look out for. If (or, we hope, when) you do organize your workplace, explicitly prohibiting this in your contract will ensure everyone will have a job to return to. The hospitality industry is made up largely of immigrants (an estimated 31%) and people of color working for low wages and facing extra employment barriers. Additionally, many immigrant workers have been unable to collect unemployment and are especially in need of job restoration if we are to rebuild our decimated industry in a way that ensures we are rebuilding for everyone.
At this point, it’s also unclear if these new laws require that workers are recalled at the same rate and hours as before, or if they can be recalled but with different duties. Many workers in 2020 found themselves called back to drastically different positions than they had left. And another big question still remains: just because the job is available, is the job safe to return to?
Many of the right of recall laws are part of a trend of increased worker input in the legislative process. Worker’s roundtables are one way to get involved in your city; issues such as living wages and fair workweeks are being prioritized at municipal levels across the country.
None of these laws would be necessary, however, if you had a union.
If you are lucky, this is just a Sister Sledge song you’re listening to as a guest at a wedding and nothing more. If you’re not so fortunate, you are a server who is refilling a coffee station at the wedding reception while the song plays, reminding you of your boss’s favorite saying to “inspire” you and your coworkers during any given shift.
There’s an unspoken rule regarding someone as family: that you will go above and beyond to help them in any scenario. But it can be harmful to not have boundaries in place in your professional (orpersonal) relationships. The “We’re AFamily” trope within workplaces, at face value appears to be something you’d desire ibut, once unwrapped, it’s only a tool to enable toxic behaviors, push limits, create excuses, bully and even perpetuate unwanted advancements.
Kitchens are one of the few work environments that have a level of domesticity entangled within them. Chefs incorporate family recipes into their work, family meals eaten together with the staff, and working most major holidays together – it makes it even easier to buy into the concept of a Work Family. If nothing else, it makes the isolating loneliness of working odd hours easier to stomach.
But that familial closeness can be a manipulative tool to pressure employees into performing tasks outside of their designated job description – anything to make the kitchen or next shift successful. Your willingness to go the extra mile for a coworker because they are “family,” while a kind gesture, can become an expected standard from those around you, and only the employer reaps the benefits of your self-exploitation. In some instances, if an employee does not buy into the concept of a Work Family, they can become ostracized and looked over for future opportunities or other benefits offered to those who are in the inner circle.
We are only human. It’s completely natural that after spending 40+ hours a week with the same people, that friendships will develop. After all, we are not robots. But, imagine what our society would look like if a 40+ hour work week wasn’t the standard and you weren’t substituting a family of coworkers for your actual family, significant others, and friends. The root of why we are attracted to a Work Family is because humans crave that connection and will seek it out to enrich our lives. The illusion of a Work Family may appear as unconditional but is often rescinded when the relationship is no longer beneficial for the business. This can create an abusive cycle in the workplace that leaves workers burnt out and morale low.
It’s Not In The Budget
“We can’t afford new silverware right now” “We can’t afford to replace the broken dishwasher, we will have to wash by hand” “We can’t afford another line cook” – it’s simply not in the budget. We’ve all heard something to the tune of that before, right? I used to work in a country club that would put on a fantastic Sunday brunch buffet that was always a big hit with the members. We would serve an extravagantly planned and executed menu that always included a guest-favorite: crab legs. However, we only had about 17 crab leg cracker tools to put out for use. Most Sundays, our banquet chefs, servers, and the dishwasher would scramble for the length of brunch to keep the 17 crab leg crackers washed and in circulation for the 200-400 guests to use. It was frequently requested from the staff to order more of the crab leg crackers to ensure we didn’t continue to run into the same problem, and we were always told the same thing: that it wasn’t in the budget. It may not have been in the supply budget but, the cost of the crab leg crackers was hemorrhaging out of the labor budget on a weekly basis. A one-time purchase would have saved employees from having to expend their energy doing busy work, when they could have (been able to focus on their respective roles.) better employed themselves with more pertinent aspects of their roles. This is just one example of the way employers will burn through existing employees to cut labor or supply costs to make their bottom line look good.
A Jack of All Trades, Master of None
With turnover rates being as high as they are in kitchens, cross-training is something that is nearly inevitable in the industry – whether it’s planned for or not. Cross-training can be presented in a positive light, with the promise of a raise or promotion being used to sweeten the deal (that may not ever come to fruition due to chronic understaffing which can quickly sour the experience). Typically, it’s the loyal employees that are tapped for cross-training opportunities due to their dedication, resilience, and desire to become more diversified in the industry.
At best it’s a symbiotic situation for the employer and employee, allowing the employee to expand their skill set on the job, while allowing the employer to cover absences and delay filling open positions to skimp on the labor budget . At worst, it’s an exploitative relationship that pressures an employee to take on more responsibilities than the position they were hired to do whenever needed. This can cause burnout from consistently having their focus divided and can result in poor morale among staff.
Kitchens are not like a typical office job where you can put off a task until Monday morning simply because of employee absence. If a line cook or a dishwasher are unexpectedly out due to illness, it falls on the chef or cross-trained employees to absorb the empty position to meet business needs for the day. There are benefits to cross-training but, the majority are reaped by the employer and not the employee.
Our Employees Make It All Possible
This certainly rings true across the industry. Without the dutiful employees who show up ready for whatever the next shift holds in store for them, there would just be ingredients sitting on shelves in walk-in coolers and empty seats in restaurants across America. It’s your ingenuity and labor that you bring to the table that injects life into this business. We are getting just a taste of this as restaurants struggle to reopen after COVID-19 and are unable to do so without the ever-valuable employees.
But, when was the last time this was appropriately appreciated by employers or even the community you serve?
And no, pizza parties do not count.
Even if your job has done something to recognize employees, either with bonuses, gift cards, or other kickbacks, did you feel like it was a genuine appreciation? Or a only favor that was being extended to you to be cashed in on the next time the need for you to work a double arises?
I think we’ve all heard it at some point: “I can’t give you a raise right now, my hands are tied.” Those are disappointing words to hear from a boss. Especially after being a loyal employee, opting to be cross-trained and take on new responsibilities, disbursing your labor when new supplies or staff weren’t in the budget, after being there for your Work Family, that your time and talents are not worth a pay increase. Feeling dejected and devalued by your existing work, you make the decision to seek out new employment elsewhere. It’s usually around this time whenever you put in a two week notice that suddenly – magically even – there is money in the budget for the raise you asked for.
It’s certainly tempting to stay on with an existing employer if a pay increase is offered so maybe you do but, the fact that you had to threaten to leave to be compensated as a valued employee hangs in the air. There is no amount of food trucks, pizza parties, or gift cards that can equate to a steady, reliable paycheck to show an employee that they are appreciated and crucial to the business.
It’s so easy to buy into the culture of a workplace and accept things as they are presented to you to be “just how things are in a kitchen” but, remember your power. You are the indispensable link that creates profit for the restaurant. Without cooks, servers, and dishwashers, a restaurant is just a building filled with hangry guests and a clueless boss who is unable to bring about the desired objective for their business. You are worthy of a livable wage, you deserve a healthy, professional relationship with your job, and the tools to do what is asked of you.
While the concept of a Work Family is nostalgic and alluring, forming a link of solidarity among staff is more sustainable in resisting exploitation from your employer, speaking the truth in your workplace, and demanding your worth.