The New York Times ran an op-ed piece this week by restaurant king-makers Tim and Nina Zagat, about the recent rash lawsuits in the restaurant industry. ROC submitted a rebuttle to the employer-side arguments, however the New York Times did not deem the news fit to print. Below is the full text of the response by ROC United Co-Founder and Co-Director, Saru Jayaraman.
The Zagats raise concern over the proliferation of workers seeking legal redress against their restaurant employers in New York and nationwide. As the country’s leading restaurant worker organization, we understand the concerns employers might raise about frivolous litigation. However, we disagree about the scope of the employment law violations workers face industry-wide. Our surveys with over 4,300 restaurant workers and one-hour interviews with over 240 employers nationwide indicate that lack of proper payment of overtime and minimum wages, as well as misappropriation of tips, are a pervasive challenge facing hundreds of thousands of restaurant workers nationwide.For example, 60% of workers in New York City and 40% of workers nationwide reported not receiving proper overtime payments. Workers, employers, and government agencies with whom we speak have agreed that, far beyond a few ‘unscrupulous restaurateurs’ who do not pay their employees properly, and also beyond confusing regulations, there is a culture of non-compliance with the law in the industry.
So when the Zagats opine that “it defies common sense to think that so many of the city’s most respected restaurateurs have intentionally cheated their waiters,” we agree that these renowned restaurateurs may not intend to cheat anyone; but intentions aside, when hundreds of thousands of workers annually are not being paid basic minimum wage nad overtime payments –which are legally entitled to them by law – the problem clearly goes beyond a few ‘bad apples,’ and requires serious intervention to changeindustry culture.
One reason that many restaurant employers industry-wide do not comply with overtime and minimum wage laws is because many do not feel that they have to. It has not been demonstrated to them that compliance is a requirement, and failure to comply will lead to certain consequences. Lawsuits are not enough of a deterrent; even the Zagats agree that lawsuits are long and complicated, and so employers do not see any immediate impact of lack of compliance.The Wage Theft Protection Act, signed into law on Monday, can serve as a greater deterrent.
We agree that simply suing restaurants will not be enough to improve conditions in the industry for all. For this reason, we are engaged in a variety of activities to support the transformation of the industry for the benefit of all stakeholders, workers and restaurateurs alike. For example, we develop the leadership of workers to understand their rights and make demands for compliance with their rights. In addition, wecan often avoid litigation when employers organize responsible employers to promote the ‘high road’ to profitability, work with them to educate employers citywide, reward and promote employers who offer exceptionalworkplace practices, and more. We encourage the Zagats to consider recognizing in their well-known restaurant guide these responsible restaurateurs for their sustainable business practices – In fact, consumers we have spoken with who wish to support responsible restaurants have, time after time, called for Zagat’s invovlemnet int his way. Through this program, we worked with responsible restaurateurs to develop a Mayor-supported Restaurant Owner Guide, explaining owners’ legal obligations to their workers, and to develop free training to employers on these issues. We and the City have distributed the Guide widely, and offered free support on these issues – and thus cannot agree that ignorance of the law among restaurant employers should be an excuse for non-compliance. We also offer ourselves as a resource to help restaurants comply with the law and become responsible, law-abiding business owners and we are committed to continuing to do so. We clearly agree – and have acted on our belief – that the law should be clear and employers should be educated on it; but beyond education, there must be consequences for fairly to comply.
We agree with the Zagats that there are a substantial number of employers who not only comply with employment laws, but also go above and beyond to provide exceptional workplace practices. These employers understand that providing good wages and working conditions and not misappropriating tips actually improves worker productivity and reduces turnover. The widespread practice of non-compliance with the law – not only by a few ‘unscrupulous’ employers but industry-wide – unfairly undercuts these restaurateurs trying to take the ‘high road’ to profitability. We hope that the Zagats will work with us to promote these employers and responsible business practice, and denounce an industry culture of non-compliance