Category: workers

Who pays for diners that dash?

GRAZE, Iowa City

Photo by Flickr user Alan Light, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

A couple months ago, Luke O’Neil penned a story for Slate about the practice of restaurants requiring servers to pick up the bill when one of their tables skips out on the check. As O’Neil details,

Many servers are forced to perform two jobs at once: delivering food and working as a severely undertrained and underpaid security force.

The dine-and-dash is often looked on as a harmless prank, without any serious consequences. Restaurants anticipate the occasional walkout as part of their business plan, right? They should, but instead they often pass the buck to employees—and when you learn that servers can be required to pay for the losses out of their own pockets, it doesn’t seem all that funny. The problem is that there aren’t strong protections against the practice in federal labor laws, and state laws prohibiting wage deductions for loss and theft are too often ignored by employers and unknown by workers….

[I]n many states, restaurants may legally dock wages from servers who’ve already been victimized by dine-and-dashers…. Even in states where the practice is technically illegal, the threat of being retaliated against … is so great that servers don’t stand up to bullying tactics from managers who see workers as disposable, precisely because they’re not required to pay them an actual wage, says Vincent Mersich, a labor lawyer in Pennsylvania. “Restaurants can transfer so much of their operating risk onto employees by paying them significantly less than minimum wage,” Mersich told me. Employers in these scenarios are essentially saying, “ ‘You haven’t assumed enough of that risk; you also have to assume the risk of people walking out on their checks,’” Mersich added. “At that point it seems exceedingly exploitative.”

The restaurant industry is messed up in many significant ways, as the recent fast-food workers strike has reminded us, but problems like wage theft, sexual and racial discrimination, and reliance on undocumented workers are at least explicitly illegal. Docking wages for walkouts should be illegal across the board, too, either via an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act or via more progressive laws at the state level.

Check out the full post here.

Women in the changing restaurant industry

April Bloomfield

Chef April Bloomfield. Photo by Flickr user Zagat Buzz, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Julia Moskin recently wrote a lengthy piece for The New York Times on advances women have been making in the restaurant industry. As she writes,

In culinary schools, women have long made up the majority in pastry courses, but are now entering general culinary programs at unprecedented rates. At the International Culinary Center (formerly the French Culinary Institute), the change has been striking: In 2012, nearly half the graduates of the culinary program were women — 202 of them, up from 41 in 1992. At Johnson & Wales University, the proportion of female graduates more than doubled over those two decades, and in 2012, men were the minority: 820 women and 818 men graduated that year. At the Culinary Institute of America, the percentage of female graduates rose to 36 percent in 2012 from 21 percent in 1992.

Many of these women have been drawn by an industry that seems newly glamorous, lively and creative. And smartly run restaurants are making new efforts to keep them by paying more attention to employees’ needs….

[For example,] at the nine branches of Momofuku in New York, employees who remain with the company for one year get free health insurance, paid vacations and maternity and paternity leave.

Sounds pretty good, no? Of course, as anyone who has worked in food service knows, it’s not all a rosy picture:

Still, in most restaurants, benefits are a pipe dream and pay is meager. Entry-level jobs, even for chefs with culinary degrees, can pay as little as $15 an hour, once 80-hour workweeks are factored in. Last week, the first in-depth study of business practices in the American restaurant industry confirmed that low pay and job insecurity have led to an exceedingly high turnover rate, compared with other businesses. This is costly for restaurateurs and chef-owners, who contend that they cannot afford to offer higher wages or benefits.

“Women are disproportionately affected by these problems that plague the industry as a whole,” said Saru Jayaraman, co-director of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, an employee advocacy group….

Head here for the full piece, then check out my earlier post on Charlotte Druckman’s book, Skirt Steak: Women Chefs on Standing the Heat and Staying in the Kitchen,

Fair Food Program lands world’s biggest grocer

Walmart representatives John Amaya (left), Tom Leech (center) and CIW’s Lucas Benitez look on as CIW’s Gerardo Reyes Chavez (far right) signs historic agreement at a Lipman Produce farm outside of Immokalee. Caption and photo by Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

The farmworkers who harvest America’s commercial tomato fields chalked up another success last week. Barry Estabrook, James Beard Award–winner and author of Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, begins his report at Civil Eats this way:

The struggle for labor justice in the fields of the United States—and perhaps far beyond—took an historic stride forward [on January 16]. At a folding table in a metal-clad produce packing shed beside a tomato field in southwestern Florida, two high-ranking executives from the giant retailer Walmart, which sells more groceries than any other company in the world, sat down beside two Mexican farmworkers and signed an agreement to join the Fair Food Program.

Originating as a solution to the atrocious working conditions in Florida’s $650 million tomato industry, which included several cases of abject slavery, the Fair Food Program was created by the Coalition of Immolakee Workers (CIW), a human rights group based in Immokalee, Florida, the state’s largest migrant workers’ community.

The program is unique in that it creates a legal framework linking laborers, tomato farm owners, and final purchasers of tomatoes. The purchasers, which include such giants as McDonalds, Whole Foods Market, and Sodexo, have agreed to pay an additional penny per pound for the tomatoes they buy. In turn, the producers pass that penny directly along to the workers. A penny-a-pound might sound like a pittance, but it represents a 50 percent raise, the difference between making $50 and $80 a day.

For the full story, including links, head here.

Food films for your consideration

King Korn: You Are What You Eat

Photo by Flickr user elycefeliz,used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Wondering what to stream online, check out from the library, or rent at your local video store?

Thanks to HuffPost, I discovered a list of “26 Films Every Food Activist Must Watch,” compiled by Danielle Nierenberg and Katie Work.

The films include modern classics like King Corn, others still in production—like Food Chains, whose Kickstarter campaign I contributed to—and a number of movies I hadn’t heard of.

As they describe,

Food Tank has selected 26 films — both long and short — to share with you. From the importance of land rights for smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa to the insidious dominance of fast food in an urban community in California, each of these films can inform and inspire eaters all over the world.

For the full list with links and brief descriptions of each film, head to Food Tank’s website. Happy viewing!

Workers on Washington berry farms push for fair treatment

Blackberry Picking at Graysmarsh Farms

Photo by Flickr user iriskh, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Matthew Canfield recently contributed an article to Civil Eats on the efforts of berry pickers in Washington state to improve their working conditions. As he describes,

On July 10, Frederico Lopez couldn’t take it anymore. The berry picker says he was constantly barraged with verbal abuse by his supervisor, while earning only 30 cents per pound of berries. “It’s unjust to yell at us like we are animals, simply for asking for a fair wage” he told his supervisors that day….

On the hot summer day Lopez complained, he was given an eviction and a pink slip – a practice that would is routine in the fields. But on this day, Lopez’s co-workers took notice and decided not to return to work the next day. What has ensued has been an all-out labor dispute in a region widely known for its local food movement. As the farm workers press on to raise their working conditions, they are raising important questions about the priorities and social values of the burgeoning food movement.

The article is well worth a read: find the full post here. For some great reporting on wage theft in the produce-picking industry, check out this earlier post.

Pesticides should speak español

Harvest I/Salinas Valley

Photo by Nathan Walls [base10] via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Yesterday NPR’s Dan Charles posted about efforts to help protect Spanish-speaking farmworkers from the chemicals they regularly come into contact with. As he notes,

Pesticides carry warning labels that spell out health risks and how workers should protect themselves — but those labels are usually in English. More than 80 percent of the workers in the “salad bowls” of Salinas, Calif., or Yuma, Ariz., are Hispanic. Many have difficulty communicating in English.

Farmworkers “are frustrated about their lack of knowledge about these chemicals,” says Virginia Ruiz, director of Occupational and Environmental Health at Farmworker Justice. Her group, along with many others, submitted formal to the EPA arguing that “without bilingual labeling, today’s Spanish-speaking agricultural workforce is at great risk for pesticide exposure.”

Find the full post—and some informative links—here.

Working in food service, living below the poverty line

McDonald's Must Pay work stoppage

Photo by Kara Newhouse via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Will Bunch of The Philadelphia Inquirer recently wrote a great piece about the sub-poverty wages of many workers in fast food and other parts of the service sector. He writes,

Over the past two decades, with the Industrial Revolution and its union wages all but a memory, fast-food jobs have skyrocketed – now employing roughly 3.5 million Americans and as many as 15,000 Philadelphians.

In a new service-based economy, flipping burgers and manning the drive-through is no longer just a part-time starter job for eager high-school students, but now a long-term solution for people on the wide bottom of the economic pyramid – folks lacking a diploma, single moms or those escaping long-term unemployment.

The ones who stay behind the counter have found not only that it’s hard to claw much above the $7.25 minimum wage, but that they have little or no leverage with the big chains or their franchisees – and no one speaking on their behalf.

Until now.

Find the full article here.

And for reporting on abuse of international guest workers by a McDonald’s franchisee (see protest photo above), check out these stories from Josh Eidelson at The Nation.

PBS’s FRONTLINE confronts sexual assault of farmworkers

Maricruz Ladino, whose story is featured in “Rape in the Fields.” ANDRES CEDIEL/FRONTLINE

A new documentary will be airing tonight on PBS stations across the country and online, titled “Rape in the Fields.” described the problem as well as the film in The Fresno Bee:

Every year in the central San Joaquin Valley, thousands of farmworkers are harvesting fruits and vegetables to feed the nation and the world. Yet, underneath this massive multibillion-dollar industry is an environment that advocates say makes it ripe for sexual abuse.

Female workers have been the victims of sexual attacks, harassment and intimidation by supervisors and fellow workers. Many have suffered in silence, afraid to tell authorities for fear of losing their jobs — or being deported.

That veil of secrecy, however, may be lifting.

Several studies have shined a national spotlight on the issue, and on Tuesday the Public Broadcasting System’s Frontline news program will feature a report on the subject titled “Rape in the Fields.” The program will be rebroadcast Saturday in Spanish on Univision’s television stations.

The program — produced in partnership with Univision, the Center for Investigative Reporting and the investigative reporting program at the University of California at Berkeley — delves into the painful price some women are paying for providing for their families. As part of the program, dozens of women — from the Valley’s almond orchards to Florida’s tomato fields — shared their stories about being victims of sexual abuse.

Find Rodriguez and Aguilera’s full story here.

Check your local listings to learn when the documentary airs in your area, or head to FRONTLINE’s website. Watch for additional content online as well: As Elizabeth Jensen of The New York Times noted when reporting on the documentary for the Media & Advertising section of the Times, “two dozen additional reports, including an animated video, will appear on the various partners’ Web sites.”


Your weekend reading list, courtesy of JBF

Farm workers picking cucumbers

Photo by Bread for the World via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Earlier this month, the James Beard Foundation announced the winners of their Journalism Awards. In the category “Food Politics, Policy, and the Environment,” the award went to Tracie McMillan for her article “As Common as Dirt,” which I wrote about earlier this year. The piece was published as a collaboration between The American Prospect and the Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN). As FERN editor-in-chief Sam Fromartz writes in a rightfully proud blog post,

Considered the Pulitzers of the food reporting world, the Beard Award was FERN’s first journalism prize, and also came within our first year of publishing.

The story revealed the systematic practice of cheating farm labor contract workers of their wages, to keep costs low. Outsourcing labor to contracting companies also allows farm businesses to distance themselves from the practice, which has prompted law suits as well as state and federal actions. McMillan told the story by focusing on 75-year-old Ignacio Villalobos, who has been a farmworker his entire life and who is a plaintiff in one of these law suits.

The story took several months to report, requiring multiple trips to southern California and many hours of interviews with farmworkers, government and industry officials, and legal advocates. The project took patience and tenacity, qualities which are frequently lacking in a time of highly constrained resources and constant deadlines….

“The exploitation of farm labor has long been one of the great scandals of American society—it dates back at least to the beginning of the 20th century—and persists to this day,” said [American Prospect Editor-in-Chief Kit] Rachlis. “Tracie’s piece looks at one of its most insidious practices—institutionalized wage theft—and shows its devastating effect on people’s lives. At once intimate, authoritative, and moving, the article ranks as one of the best the Prospect has ever published.”

Find McMillan’s article here; it really is worth a read. For the full list of the other 2013 Journalism Award winners, including links to most of the articles, head here.

Needless granary deaths a persistent problem

Grain Storage on the Prairie

Photo by Macomb Paynes via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Last fall I posted about coverage in The New York Times of, as I wrote then, “the cause of a small but persistent number of deaths on U.S. farms each year: grain storage buildings, or—more accurately—employers’ failure to ensure that proper safety procedures are followed when workers are inside them.”

It was a great piece of reporting that helped bring to light needless and senseless worker deaths. I was glad to see the issue getting additional in-depth coverage last week from NPR and the Center for Public Integrity in a special series titled, “Buried In Grain.”  A number of audio pieces from NPR’s Howard Berkes aired throughout the week, and print versions are available online. I highly recommend them. As reported in the first entry,

on a stifling hot day in July 2010, [14-year-old Wyatt] Whitebread joined his buddies Alex Pacas, 19, and Will Piper, 20, at the Haasbach LLC grain storage complex. Piper had begun working there the week before, and it was Pacas’ second day on the job.

The boys carried shovels and picks as they climbed a ladder four stories to the top of the grain bin, which was twice as wide and half-filled with 250,000 bushels of wet and crusty corn. Their job was to “walk down the grain,” or break up the kernels that clung to the walls and clogged the drainage hole at the bottom of the bin.

The work went well at first, with the boys shoveling corn toward a cone-shaped hole at the center of the bin. But around 9:45 a.m., Whitebread began sinking in the corn. He was sucked under in minutes and disappeared. Pacas and Piper also began to sink and desperately struggled to stay on the surface.

Six horrific hours later, only Piper was carried out alive.

The story details how simple safety precautions, which are required by current law, can prevent such tragedies. It also documents how ineffective the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been at tackling this ongoing problem. As the report describes,

“At some point we’re going to have to decide whether these incidents are just accidental … [or] somebody’s really making horrendous decisions that approach a criminal level,” says [Bill] Field [a professor of agricultural and biological engineering] at Purdue, who is often enlisted as an expert witness in grain death lawsuits and as a safety consultant for the grain industry and OSHA.

“It’s intentional risk-taking on the part of the managers or someone in a supervisory capacity that ends up in some horrific incidents,” Field adds. “The bottom line is if you ask them why they did it, it was because it was more profitable to do it that way.”

Field counts more than 660 farmers and workers who suffocated in nearly 1,000 grain entrapments since 1964 at both commercial facilities and on farms. Nearly 500 died in grain bins. One in four victims was younger than 18.

Head to the home page of the series here , where you’ll find links to NPR’s four stories, photos, documents obtained in the investigation, and links to related reports from the Center for Public Integrity, the Kansas City Star, and Harvest Public Media.