BY HEATHER SOMERVILLE
MARCH 11, 2010
Workers sue Ole Ole for $80,000 in wages
Ole Ole became the poster-child for exploitative restaurant employers when allegations surfaced late last year that it withheld more than $80,000 from employees between 2007 and 2009.
Restaurant Opportunities Center in Chicago has joined Working Hands Legal Clinic in a lawsuit against Ole Ole, a Mexican restaurant at 5413 N. Clark Street in Andersonville, seeking lost wages for four employees. The case was filed Feb. 4 and, as of last week, the restaurant had not responded to the claims, said attorney Alvar Ayala, who is representing the employees.
Working Hands is seeking all documentation of minimum wage and overtime wage violations. From employee testimony, ROC estimates Ole Ole owes at least $80,000 in wages.
Owner Regina Pavone declined to comment. Lawsuits have been filed against Pavone as an individual and against the company.
Victor Vega worked at Ole Ole from 2006 through 2009, when he said he was fired. Vega worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day, and was supposed to receive weekly paychecks, he said. However, during his last two years of employment, Vega was paid only once a month, he said. His paycheck was usually less than $300.
Vega said he didn’t leave Ole Ole because the owners repeatedly promised he would be paid. Ole Ole employed three cooks, including Vega, and five servers. Vega said the other cooks were not paid, either, and the servers received only tips.
Vega lived above the restaurant during his employment with his wife and two children. Vega said his family did not pay rent. Vega now works at Sweetwater Tavern and Grille on Michigan Avenue. Originally from Mexico, Vega has worked in Chicago’s restaurant industry for 12 years. He joined Restaurant Opportunities Center two months ago to fight for his lost wages, and improve conditions for other workers in the industry, he said.
Ole Ole closed about a month ago. Phone lines have been disconnected, but during a visit to the restaurant, Pavone answered the door, although would not agree to an interview.
During the last five years working in Chicago-area restaurants, Denise Sanchez has watched heroin addicts shoot up while making pizzas. She’s stepped over rats while scrubbing countertops. She’s been harassed, bullied and cheated out of money while serving tables for less than minimum wage.
“I’m a tough-skinned chick,” said Sanchez. “But I feel like the industry makes you feel like you’re replaceable.”
Sanchez’s experience in Chicago’s restaurants is not unique. A recent study by the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Chicago, a labor organization created in 2009 for restaurant workers, quantifies what most people in the industry already know – restaurant working conditions can be harsh. The industry fosters an environment that breeds labor violations and illicit behavior, leaving workers to suffer at the hands of owners who are either greedy or simply poor business people, experts say.
“People get trapped in these bad jobs, and without … an escape mechanism, you end up developing these indentured servitude kind of situations,” said Jose Oliva, policy coordinator for the labor organization.
The February study by the labor group, “Behind the Kitchen Door,” showed one-third of the 582 restaurant workers surveyed have experienced overtime wage violations. Nearly one-third reported working off the clock without pay. Fifteen percent said they were robbed of their share of tips, and almost 5 percent reported earning less than state minimum wage, $7.75 per hour.
“It’s very common to find minimum wage and overtime violations in this industry,” said Alvar Ayala, attorney with Working Hands Legal Clinic in Chicago. “They are a very regular part of this practice.”
Jose Landa, line cook at Junior’s Sports Lounge on Halstead and Maxwell streets, said he worked in a Japanese restaurant in Chicago where he was paid less than minimum wage. Landa has worked in 15 restaurants in the city over the last five years. He now earns $10 per hour at Junior’s, a higher wage than most other restaurants have paid him.
Immigrants are the most vulnerable to wage violations, Oliva said. Fear of deportation often keeps undocumented workers in positions earning low wages, and language barriers may prevent immigrants from protesting workplace violations or leaving their jobs.
“It’s a very complicated socio-economic situation,” Oliva said. “People stay in a very bad job because they’re fearful of change, they’re fearful of a bad economy, they’re fearful of leaving what they know.”
Immigrants and minorities are also usually hired for back-of-the-house positions, where they don’t have to communicate with customers and it’s easier for workplace violations to occur, Ayala said.
“[Minorities] are generally not given the opportunity to climb out of these positions,” Ayala said.
Health and safety issues
Kitchen workers who are not trained to use equipment properly or don’t understand safety instructions because of a language barrier are most frequently injured on the job. According to the Restaurant Opportunities Center study, about one-half of workers cut or burned themselves on the job, and more than one-third reported not receiving workplace safety training.
Restaurants often bypass employee training because of high employee turnover rates, but training would save money and improve business in the long run, said Marcia Schurer, president of Culinary Connections, a restaurant consulting company.
“If you train workers, then maybe they wouldn’t leave,” Schurer said. “It is definitely more cost effective to train someone and help them advance in their job and succeed in their job than advertise to replace them.”
Economic vitality is critical for an industry that provides 140,000 jobs in Cook County, according to Restaurant Opportunities Center. Chicago is home to the second-largest restaurant industry in the nation, and restaurant job growth has outpaced every other division of employment over the past 10 years. In 2008, the Chicago metropolitan area food and accommodations sector generated $12.7 billion.
Better employee training would also improve restaurant sanitation and reduce public health and safety hazards. More than one-third of workers surveyed by the labor organization reported doing something that put their own health and safety at risk, and almost one-quarter reported doing something that harmed the health and safety of customers.
“I’ve seen all kinds of health violations, like food that shouldn’t even be served being served,” said Luis DeLeon, a 10-year Chicago restaurant worker and ROC member. “I’ve seen guys drop food on the floor, pick it up, still use it, without even having the decency to throw it out. It’s disrespectful.”
The most frequent restaurant health inspection violations are food temperature and cross-contamination, said Tim Hadac, public information officer with the Chicago Department of Public Health. These violations are often the failure of a certified food manager in training staff. Every licensed restaurant in the city is required to have a food manager, Hadac said.
“Dealing with food safety and public health, you have to know that your workers are well trained,” Schurer said. “Bringing illness into the food establishment is risky and certainly not desirable.”
Brandon Riley, general manager at Junior’s, agrees.
“We take health and safety very seriously,” Riley said. “The last thing you want is an outbreak and your venue be the source of it.”
The Restaurant Opportunities Center recognizes Junior’s as a “high-road” restaurant that that pays employees a living wage and provides opportunities for career advancement. Junior’s parent company, which owns five Chicago restaurants, hired Alberto Lopez seven years ago as a dishwasher. Four years ago, when Junior’s opened, Lopez was offered the position as kitchen manager. Riley said he has given kitchen staff the opportunity to bartend and work in supervisor positions, where they have been successful.
“It starts with me,” Riley said. “I think a good manager will see someone who excels and put them in a position to do the best they can, not only for themselves but for business, too.”
Junior’s isn’t alone on the high road. Pressure from groups like labor organization has pushed other restaurants in Chicago to find ways to stay profitable while paying employees a living wage and offering health benefits. Although they have higher personnel costs, high-road establishments usually make more money, Schurer said. Employees are happier in better working conditions and will stay in their positions longer, and reducing turnover rate is critical to producing a better product, Schurer said.
“A lot of these issues can be resolved by being good business people, by having good business practices,” Schurer said. “Everything starts at the top. The top has to say, ‘I value my employees.’”
Restaurant owners may balk at the idea of raising wages and offering benefits in a tough economy, but Riley said treating people right is critical to running a successful business.
“If you do things the right way, if you do them by the book, and go an extra step, I don’t really see where you can go wrong,” Riley said. “I think you can live your life like that.”
Last month, Michelle Obama visited a Springfield, Mo., Walmart to celebrate and highlight its efforts to help Americans eat healthier. Mrs. Obama announced, “For years, the conventional wisdom said healthy products just didn’t sell… Thanks to Walmart and so many other great American businesses, we’re proving that conventional wisdom wrong.” If only this neoliberal logic delivered as promised. As with Michael Bloomberg’s cola crusade, the narrow focus on food choices, individual behavior (“Get Fit”), and healthy lifestyles obscures the structural inequalities that contribute to health inequity.
While Walmart MAY have led to great access to organic foods or fresh fruits and vegetables in some communities, it also contributes to the very conditions that make “healthy living” difficult. Stacy Mitchell notes the deleterious impact of Walmart and other members of the food industry’s 1 percent:
The real effect of Walmart’s takeover of our food system has been to intensify the rural and urban poverty that drives unhealthy food choices. Poverty has a strong negative effect on diet… Walmart has made it harder for farmers and food workers to earn a living. Its rapid rise as a grocer triggered a wave of mergers among food companies, which, by combining forces, hoped to become big enough to supply Walmart without getting crushed in the process.
The fight over injustice is not limited to these mega companies. The destructive impact the food industry has on the health and well-being of people across this country (and beyond) extends beyond the fields and super markets. It is most certainly evident in the treatment of restaurant workers,
In a new book entitled Beyond the Kitchen Door, Saru Jayaraman highlights the harmful impact of the restaurant industry on the health, economic security, and lives of those who cook, serve, and provide for US. Jayarman paints a picture of a restaurant world defined by exploitation, mistreatment, and abuse. It is a world not simply of delicious foods and celebrity chefs, but of workers, moms and dads, scraping by just to make ends meet.
Saru Jayarman pulls the curtain back on restaurant work, highlighting the struggles endured on the dining room floor. Far from the glamorous world of Top Chef or the joys of being a foodie, restaurant work is both hard and poorly compensated. As of 2013, federal minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13 an hour. When tips don’t net the mandated $7.25 (current federal minimum wage), restaurants are supposed to make up the difference. Not shockingly, this doesn’t happen in many cases. According to the book (pg. 70), 13 percent of restaurant workers report managers stealing their tips. Others note how restaurant supervisors require them to report larger tip counts to create the illusion of an earned minimum wage. Jayarman tells the story of Claudia, a server at a pancake restaurant in Texas. Enduring racism from customers, she also did not receive sufficient tips on many occasions (one has to wonder how racism, sexism, and homophobia impact tips). The combination of her tip count and her wage left her income under the federally mandated amount. Instead of making up the difference, a manager told her, “If you don’t make enough tips to make up the difference, you have to report that you made the money anyway.” In other words, her poverty wages were often way below poverty level.
In another instance, one of Claudia’s tables walked out on their bill of $98 dollars. “She told me that it was my fault, and that I’d have to pay the bill. I had made $80 dollars in tops that night,” noted Claudia. “So after tipping out the bussers and the dishwater, the manager took all my tips and told me I still owed the restaurant $18. I had worked from 10:00 p.m. until 9:00 a.m. — though I clocked out at 7 a.m. — and instead of paying me anything, they were telling me I had to pay them.” It is no wonder that 80 percent of food service workers do not earn a livable wage (pg. 3); of the few that do earn a living wage, a large portion are white men who work at upscale restaurants (pg. 117). This is the American Dream; this is American poverty; this is restaurant work. These men and women are the 47 percent, the “takers,” who despite serving the 1 percent, alongside the rest of us, get little in return but grief, mistreatment, and disrespect.
As with every American institution, race matters. Restaurants are immensely segregated: by location, by job, by placement on the floor, by wage, and by clientele. Servers, bartenders, and hosts are white, while runners, bussers, those in the back of the house, and those who make the lowest wages are overwhelming people of color. Of those who have reported earning less than minimum wage, 96 percent are people of color (pg. 117). Workers of color experience racism and microaggressions; they are more likely to be questioned as to their qualifications (pg. 127). It is a world where irrespective of diversity, in terms of both staff and food choices, racism remains a constant on every menu. According to Jayarman, “We tend not to realize that diversity is not the same as equity — that simply seeing a lot of restaurant workers from different backgrounds have equal opportunities to advance to jobs that will allow them support themselves and their families.”
The restaurant industry is also rife with sexism — women earn less than their male counterparts throughout the culinary world (pg. 131; 136). Women are also relegated to the lowest-paying jobs with the worst chances of upward mobility. Women are subjected to rampant sexual harassment. Although only 7 percent of the nations workers can be found in restaurants, in 2011 they accounted for 37 percent of the sexual harassment complaints to the EEOC. (pg. 142) The relative silence about these abuses and horrid conditions is telling. We all frequent restaurants yet our interactions, our complicity, and our focus on pleasure over people perpetuates a cycle where exploitation and abuse remain in the shadows.
Food justice and ongoing fights around the food industry will be central to the struggle for justice and equity well into the 21st century. From Monsanto to food deserts, from the working conditions of those who work within a myriad of food industries to food insecurity, from fast food to four-star restaurants, the intersections of race, class, gender, and nation are mapped onto these struggles over food. Underemployment, health inequalities and exploitation are not only evident at the beginning of the food chain, but at every step, including the ultimate delivery to a dinner table near you. Those fights must challenge the hegemony of Monsanto and Wal-Mart, Inc. alongside the demands for justice within America’s restaurant industry.
Previously published at The Feminist Wire.