Restaurant Workers Fight Unsavory Conditions, Wage Theft, Racism and More at Capital Grille (Participation)

Published November 14, 2014 by djlwsu

Photo Credit: Dave Winer via Flickr

Restaurant Workers Fight Unsavory Conditions, Wage Theft, Racism and More at Capital Grille

In These Times /  By Michelle Chen

The following article first appeared at Working In These Times, the labor blog of In These Timesmagazine. For more news and analysis like this, sign up to receive In These Times’ weekly updates.

America is what it eats, and our restaurants, where we wolf down everything from Belgian fries to sushi, serve up the best and the worst of our economy.  Behind every elegant table is a churning, stressed out kitchen, staffed with workers who may be barely able to feed their own families.

While restaurant owners scarf up profits, workers with the Restaurant Opportunities Center are biting back with a multi-city campaign against a company that represents the one-percent of the food service industry. They have launched protests as well as legal action against Darden, which runs Capital Grille, Olive Garden, Red Lobster and other prominent eateries.

According to the lawsuit, Capital Grille workers in Los Angeles, New York City, and Chicago  were subjected to grueling work schedules and underpayment of wages, and sometimes were forced to work “off the clock” and denied overtime. Some tipped workers allegedly had their wages siphoned off to supplement the pay of non-tipped employees. There are also allegations of systematic racial discrimination—complaints that black workers were pushed out of the job and told they “didn’t meet Capital Grille standards.” In recent months, workers from other cities have also come forward with complaints about mistreatment.

The litigation is part of a grassroots campaign to expose unsavory labor practices throughout the restaurant sector. ROC’s organizing work in New York, Chicago, the Washington, DC area, Los Angeles and Miami has revealed patterns of exploitation that reflect business as usual in an industry that routinely fattens its profit margins by skirting regulations and squeezing labor costs.

John Cronan, a former New York City Capital Grille worker who now works as an organizer with ROC New York, said that in his experience as well as the experiences of workers who have approached ROC in recent months, discrimination and other unfair labor practices are rampant in various Capital Grille branches.

Cronan noted that the hierarchy of the industry is reflected in the racial divisions in the staff, which reflect industry-wide trends of segregation:

The server assistants–that’s below the servers on the hierarchy—they’re [mostly] immigrants, all workers of color, and they’re the same guys who’ve been there seven, almost eight years, who have still been in the same spot… Meanwhile you have young white kids who’ve been hired at age 21, 22, 23, with not as much experience, who don’t know the restaurant, can’t carry plates. And they’re being hired as servers.

For the staff in general, he added, due to deliberate understaffing and overstretching of the workforce, “you have guys doing the work of three jobs for the pay of one, not getting a raise in three to four years.”

In a video testimony, Elose Arestil, a Haitian American former Capital Grille worker in Miami, said she was fired after she injured her hand while washing dishes.  Through her son’s translation, she also recalled being forced to work off the clock and do extra tasks. She joined the ROC Miami campaign, she said, “because the way she was let off was not right, and as people, she had respect for them, and they should give the same respect to her.”

Ignacio Villegas, who worked at the Capital Grille pantry station for seven years, testified about how he was treated after becoming sick:

My cheek was swollen from a tooth infection and they told me I had to work. I had to go to work with my face swollen and with horrible pain that was difficult to tolerate. [We do this] because we are not working for fun, we’re working for necessity. We need a job to survive and support ourselves.

The underlying problems that ROC’s litigation highlights are deeper than workers’ individual legal grievances. As we’ve reported before at ITT, institutional racism and labor abuses are part of an industry status quo that can only be addressed through a major shift in the institutional culture. Beyond the legal issues raised in the suit, ROC says it hopes the litigation will spur broader reforms at Darden that will prevent abuses and and improve working conditions in the future.

The “Dignity at Darden” campaign reflects ROC’s general strategy for combating labor abuses: targeting high-profile companies with brands that consumers recognize, and with big enough clout in the industry to set an example for other employers.

Founded in the wake of 9/11 by displaced restaurant workers from the Twin Towers, the organization has since engaged cooks, servers, busboys and hostesses all over the country in protest campaigns as well as legal action and social research. Alongside campaigns against individual employers—mostly prominent tablecloth establishments—ROC has advocated for a long-overdue raise in the minimum wage for tipped workers, and local and federal initiatives to provide paid sick leave for workers so they don’t have to sacrifice income to deal with illness.

Despite the challenges of organizing in a notoriously exploitative sector, restaurant workers can make an ethical appeal to the public that no corporation can trump: we all care about what we eat, and we all ought to care about the people who feed us.

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5 comments on “Restaurant Workers Fight Unsavory Conditions, Wage Theft, Racism and More at Capital Grille (Participation)

  • It’s pretty amazing the conditions that many workers go through and face. In America it is kept pretty quiet except for articles like these. I never realized until this class how bad these conditions are. Making them work for free, never having a chance to move up, and being forced to work while sick or injured is terrible. Restaurant jobs have to be one of the few where they don’t receive paid sick days or have to be worried of losing their jobs after missing just one day. For as hard as they work, they are not compensated nearly enough and is a serious problem in our country, one that needs to be fixed immediately for people to make it.

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  • The conditions of restaurant workers in America is disturbing. Nobody should have to go thorough the torture that theses people described in this article and behind the kitchen door go through. Something needs to be done about the minimum tipped wages. It is sanding that there are so many people in this industry that are still working under the poverty line everyday. There is not much the workers can do but obey their bosses since their jobs are necessary in order to sustain their families. The stories that shock me the most are hearing about people working when they are sick. In behind the kitchen door the author talks about how employees continue to do their jobs with super contagious diseases. This is unsanitary and makes me not want to eat our at restaurant. I think if more people knew about these problems, the majority of Americans would be more willing to help them out.

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  • The amount of things that waiters and kitchen staff have to deal with is crazy. Often many of the waiters can’t take off work because they don’t get paid sick leave, therefore they are touching our food when they are sick which spreads sickness very quickly. Also it is sad that the fact that the amount of hours they work and they cannot even afford healthcare as well as other essentials like child care and even a home. The harsh conditions and lack of pay, these workers need to get better paid because if this work industry continues like this more and more waiters will not be able to keep up with the economy.

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  • After reading this article, it really opened my eyes and thoughts about all the horrible stuff thats go on behind a delicious plate of food. I find it disturbing that the outcome of the workers preparing food for us is a happy customer, but yet something this awful is happening to them. The unfair labor standards needs to be addressed to help the struggling workers. For them to be forced to work when they have a legitimate health related excuse is not fair is any way. Not to mention that many of them can’t even afford healthcare with their job. Their jobs aren’t easy, they are hard working employees that should receive better benefits than what they currently receive.

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  • Before taking this class and further analyzing how the restaurant industry can be very corrupted I never really thought much of what went on in the restaurants besides the fact of how my food and customer service were. Now that I am more educated on this topic i find it so unfair how horrible and unfair these restaurant workers have it. These jobs are not easy and to top it off they are not payed fairly. The worst thing about these disparities is that most employees stay quiet because they know that they will not be properly defended and are at high risk of being fired. One major problem I see here is that the US government isn’t getting involved enough. They aren’t regulating fairly. These employers are stealing thousands of dollars from their employees annually but if it were vise versa and an employee were to steal from an employer it would be Word War 3. This is corruption at it’s finest and it’s obvious that the US government is not getting involved because its not at their best interest to in any way threaten their allies with these restaurants that produce a high revenue. They like to collect their taxes! An outside connection that I can make to the real world with the disparities that are silenced within the restaurants is that in my women studies class we have discussed how the global health issue of Prescription drugs for HIV AID’s in Africa is very unjust. This is another great example of how the US did very little to no effort in regulating the pharmaceutical firms into making the drug patent more accessible to the African people who are not able to pay the high prices set up by the firms. It was not actually until the US faced an emergency Anthrax attack after 9/11 that they threatened the firms to make it more accessible world wide because they really needed great quantities of it at low costs to treat the people of the US. This just goes to show that the US only acts out when it’s in its best interest. This connection between the restaurant industry and the global health issue in Africa is very important to me because it has helped me look at things in a new perspective. I care more about what goes around me because we may never know if we are being treated unequally.

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