Dog Days

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Next time you buy a hot dog in Central Park, be careful: the guy selling it to you might be ill.

He doesn’t want to sneeze on your order. But park vendors don’t get sick days from their employer, M&T Pretzel. And when an irate customer does something like break a vendor’s hand because a Gatorade costs $3–this actually happened a few months ago–the vendor gets no medical coverage. Nor does he get paid vacation. If someone steals a bottle of Hawaiian Punch, the replacement cost comes from the vendor’s pocket–at retail price. And if the man who runs the cart wants a hot dog for lunch, he must buy it, too.

For all this, vendors are paid a flat rate of $80 a day, which translates to minimum wage ($5.15 an hour) including overtime–but the extra labor is mandatory and grueling. Workers punch the clock at the M&T garage at 7 a.m. and don’t punch out until 8 or 9 at night, when the bosses have accounted for every last bun and Creamsicle. If there’s a big event in the park, they won’t leave work until 11 or so. They get a $75 bonus for working a six-day week, but that’s assuming it doesn’t rain or snow–in which case they may be sent home without pay. Now that it’s winter, many are furloughed, not working at all.

Before the State Attorney General’s labor division got involved in 2002, workers allege, it was common for them to get just $60 or $65 a day–effectively below the minimum wage. According to lawyer Sean Basinski of the Urban Justice Center, who alerted the AG and helped with its investigation, M&T agreed to give back pay, though how much does not yet appear to have been resolved. (The office of Attorney General Eliot Spitzer says it has a policy of not commenting on open cases.)

M&T co-owner Thomas Makkos, a.k.a. “Mike” to workers, declined to be interviewed. “Usually we don’t like to give interviews about our business,” he says.

Quasi Dahomani worked for M&T from 1997 until a year ago. To his bosses, he says, “I am nothing.”

In late 2002, Dahomani led an organizing effort among Central Park vendors, demanding, as he recalls, “a raise, salary, overtime, insurance.” He distributed a petition and tried to get workers to a meeting held by the attorney general and Urban Justice Center. But vendors were scared, and the meeting never happened. Soon a snowy winter arrived and Dahomani took the season off. When he returned in early 2003, M&T said it no longer needed him. “I come every week,” he recalls. “They give other people jobs, not me.”

All this might seem like run-of-the-mill exploitation of immigrant workers who can make far more money at New York’s worst jobs than they can in their home countries. Almost all M&T vendors are from Bangladesh, where the average daily wage is less than $2. Typically, these workers are stuck at M&T–to support their families back in Dhaka, they need to maintain their green card status in the U.S.

But working as a Big Apple parks vendor hardly falls in the same league as washing dishes at an immigrant uncle’s hole-in-the-wall in Queens. The food carts in Central Park, Washington Square, Battery and other parks make big money for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Each year, M&T pays more than $4 million in concessions fees to the Parks Department for permits for dozens of carts. The most lucrative spot–in front of the Metropolitan Museum–bagged the Parks Department $301,550 last year. The spot on 79th and Fifth, where a 12-year veteran of M&T currently works for minimum wage, brings the city $105,750. Battery Park carts generate more than a half million dollars each year.

The deal appears to have been good for M&T, too. The family-run company, part of the Makkos Organization, owns the carts and collects from the sale of heavily marked-up comestibles. In addition, its own affiliated companies manufacture the pretzels and hot dogs that M&T vendors sell, and they supply independent vendors, too. Other M&T franchises include the Terrace on the Park restaurant in Flushing Meadows and the Central Park Carousel, which is worth nearly $200,000 a year to the city. M&T paid the lobbying firm Greenberg Traurig $38,972 in 2002 to negotiate with the city on its behalf. One partner, George Makkos, owns an apartment in a luxury high rise on 57th Street. His brother Tom has his own perch near the top of Trump Tower. Both own homes in the Hamptons.

And now they’re about to expand their parks empire. George and Tom Makkos, with a third partner, have reached an agreement with the Parks Department to take over the American Place restaurant in Battery Park. For the next 15 years, the Makkoses will pay the city $4.8 million annually, or 10 to 15 percent of gross revenue, whichever is higher.

Parks puts numerous stipulations on how concessionaires like M&T do business: They must keep the area surrounding the carts clean, post price lists on them, carry liability insurance, and so on. The agreement for the Battery Park restaurant contains hundreds of operations provisions, including obligations to advertise the restaurant (ads cannot be “indecent”), install a traffic light, separate recycling into blue and green bins, and not cut down dead trees without Parks’ permission. In addition, the Makkos brothers are pledging $1.6 million in capital improvements, including renovation of a public bathroom. These costly requirements are needed to ensure that the restaurant enhances one of the city’s grand public spaces.

But what about workers? The Parks commissioner has to approve their uniforms, and the company must employ 96 staffers in season (including an attendant for the public bathrooms). Yet the agreement contains nary a word about how these employees are to be treated–much less what they get paid.

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Things could be done differently, of course. In 2002, the New York City Council unanimously passed a living wage law. Now companies and nonprofits working under certain city contracts–for home care, food service and a few others–pay employees at least $8.60 an hour, or $10.10 if they don’t provide health benefits. Though it did get brought up behind the scenes, the idea of extending the living wage on franchises and concessions like M&T’s pushcart business never made it to the table.

Concessions netted the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation a record $61.5 million in fiscal year 2002 (despite significant 9/11-related losses), and included stadiums, tennis courts, golf courses, ice rinks, marinas and other businesses on Parks property. In effect, these companies pay the city for the privilege of making money in public spaces.

Other cities, mostly on the West Coast, already extend their living wage laws to concessions, or have special mandates for tenants in public facilities, such as airports. Los Angeles, Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco, Richmond and Santa Cruz all do this. So does St. Louis.

There’s a particularly compelling reason to extend living wage laws to concessions, say advocates for these measures. When a municipality hires companies to provide direct services, requiring them to pay living wages means the city itself will have to pay more to account for the cost of the higher wages. Franchises and concessions are different, points out Howard Greenwich, policy director for the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy and a key player in promoting living wage laws in the Bay Area. Since the companies are renting public space, they’re paying the city, not vice-versa. And because concessionaires bring in revenue from customers, they can pass some of the increased cost on to the consumer. As a result, says Greenwich, “there is reason to believe there’s less cost passed on [to a city] in a franchisee relationship” than with other living wage-bound contracts.

San Francisco’s airport is a good example of a place where costs from a living wage law are shifted on to consumers, according to a 2003 study from the Institute of Industrial Relations at the University of California at Berkeley. It has had a living wage law since 2000 (currently more than $10 an hour), which adds an estimated cost of $42.7 million a year. Concessionaires at the airport don’t just eat the cost: When their leases expire, they can renegotiate lower rent to compensate for additional labor expenses. But, following Federal Aviation Administration rules, unmet operating costs are passed on to airlines–which typically pass those to passengers as landing fees. The report’s authors estimate that the living wage will eventually cost each passenger using SFO an additional $1.42. (The study also found that providing a living wage solved a massive worker turnover problem that was threatening passenger security.) “It’s a 0.7 percent [fare] increase: incredibly small, not enough to cause any major disruption,” says coauthor Ken Jacobs, a policy specialist at Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education and a former leader of San Francisco’s living wage movement.

Richard Waller, the official charged with enforcing San Francisco’s living wage laws (including a new $8.50 minimum wage that applies to all employers in the city), maintains the report’s conclusions are sound, and that wage mandates don’t threaten the viability of concessions or other establishments. “No business says, ‘We can’t do it–the wages are too high,'” says Waller.

(City Limits sought an assessment from the New York City Parks Revenue Department of whether living wages could be imposed without significantly cutting into city revenues. The agency did not respond to a request for an interview.)

To be sure, a living wage mandate can cause problems for a business–especially if there’s a competitor nearby with no obligation to pay more than the minimum. In Berkeley, a restaurant that suddenly found itself located in a “living wage zone” on a marina is currently suing the city, claiming the mandate is an unfair imposition.

But it’s much more typical for a city to put a concession out to bid–and for companies who don’t like the terms to simply walk off and leave the field to competitors willing to pay. Muses Greenwich, “I’ve never quite understood why organizations in the living wage movement haven’t focused on franchises and concessions.”

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If all goes as planned, this is the last year Mohammed will be working for M&T. (Mohammed is not his real name–after what happened to Dahomani, workers worry about getting fired.) It’s hard to know how unhappy he is as he dispatches his duties with cheer and efficiency, maintaining prep school kids on a steady diet of Bubble Gum Swirls and Lemon Popsicles. He reckons that his cart grosses $1,500 to $3,000 a day.

There is one thing vendors can do, especially when a cart gets busy and frenetic: overcharge customers and squirrel some cash into their own pockets. That used to be easier–when sodas cost $1.75 instead of $2, vendors often rounded up the price and kept the extra quarter as a tip.

Mohammed hopes this year will be his last, for now, in the United States. He just learned that he’s getting his citizenship, but says there’s no point in bringing his wife and two daughters to the U.S. “How would they survive?” he wonders.

With a U.S. passport, he’ll be able to live in Bangladesh year-round, without worrying about his green card status, but always with the option of returning to the U.S. in a pinch. “This is why I go back,” says Mohammed. “No more America.”

Abu Taher is executive editor of The Weekly Bangla Patrika, a Queens-based newspaper.