No Taking Orders Anymore

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All summer long, former busboys, waiters, and other volunteers roamed the streets, paced up and down subway platforms, and dawdled in back alleys, stopping passersby and asking, “Do you work in a restaurant?”

Very often, the answer was “yes.” Yet despite their numbers, New York City’s 160,000 restaurant workers are all but invisible in the local political landscape. Only a fraction are unionized, and thousands are immigrants with few avenues for political or legal support.

That’s where the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York comes in. Founded just after September 11 by displaced staff from Windows on the World, ROC has far fewer members than Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 100, the city’s primary restaurant union. Yet the new group has turned its low profile into an asset. Rather than organizing the white-tablecloth crowd, it focuses on smaller establishments. Most recently, ROC used a series of protests to pressure a Brooklyn deli to hand over $200,000 in overdue wages to Mexican workers.

ROC, in collaboration with the Urban Justice Center’s Community Development Project, initiated this summer’s survey to investigate hourly wages, work schedules, benefits, and commonplace labor abuses in restaurants. Some questions tested respondents’ knowledge of workplace rights. Workers were asked, for instance, whether they could be legally fired for complaining about working conditions, or to state the minimum wage. “Most don’t even know that there is a minimum wage,” says Saru Jayaraman, ROC’s director.

Though the survey won’t be finished until October, preliminary results show that opportunities for promotion are scarce in the restaurant industry. Less than a quarter of the 200 respondents said they had ever ascended in position in their jobs. In general, Latinos are overwhelmingly relegated to back-of-the-house positions like delivery and dishwashing.

And restaurant workers are often underpaid. More than 40 percent of respondents reported not receiving overtime wages, and nearly 60 percent said they did not receive regular raises. Only about one in 10 had full health insurance coverage from their employer, and 70 percent had none at all.

Finally, workplace conditions received tepid reviews. Over 40 percent of respondents had not received workplace safety instruction, and nearly the same percentage reported fire hazards in their restaurants. Over a third–most of them Latino workers–reported verbal abuse by their bosses in the past year.

Raul Escobar, a ROC member from Mexico who has worked on and off for 10 years at restaurants, pushed the volunteers to visit neighborhoods like Jackson Heights, where many restaurant workers live, instead of trying to find them at restaurants, where they might be reluctant to talk. He hopes this sensitive approach will help build ROC’s membership. “This association gives you the chance to grow, to experience many things, and to get informed,” says Escobar. “That’s what we need.”