Restaurant Workers in NYC: Bad jobs = Bad risks?

January 26th, 2005 by

In a fascinating study of restaurant workers in New York City, the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York presents the results of a survey of over 500 workers and over 30 employers in the industry. There are about 165,000 restaurant jobs in the city, comprising 4.8% of the workforce. The median wage for these workers is $9.11 (meaning, of course, that half make less than that amount!). Fully 90% of the workers receive no health insurance benefits. Most have no paid vacation and no paid sick leave. The majority of the workers are Hispanic and Asian. The jobs are for the most part dead end, with no training and no focus on safety and health.
In addition to long hours, low wages and no benefits, many of these workers are subjected to very difficult working conditions: hot kitchens, slippery floors, aging equipment. Discriminatory practices are rampant. If workers miss time due to illness or family emergencies, they are usually fired. The turnover rate is very high.
Everyone at Risk
As we review this litany of third world conditions for thousands of restaurant workers in New York City — and then multiply that by similar conditions in major cities throughout the country — some might well ask, “so what? It’s not my problem!” Ah, but it could easily become your problem. Poorly trained workers may not handle your food properly. Workers without health benefits ignore their symptoms and drag themselves to work, day after day, thereby putting the eating public at risk. Lacking sick leave, desperate employees may bring highly contagious problems into the kitchens and serving areas.
The Voice of the Employers
The report includes surveys of employers. They report the difficulty of operating in New York: the high rents, high fixed costs, the high cost of insurance. The uncertain market where they never quite know how many meals will be served. Some would like to pay benefits, but say they cannot afford it. To be sure, the report sites a number of successful restaurants taking the “high road” by paying good wages and benefits to a stable group of employees.
Where’s Comp?
In reading the 70 page report, I sought in vain for any reference to workers compensation. The report takes note of frequent workplace injuries — slips and falls, burns, cuts — but describes a process where the worker simply treats him or herself, or perhaps goes to the emergency room, where the bill ends up on the hospital’s tab. Where’s workers compensation? While health insurance, paid sick and vacation time are discretionary, employers must provide workers compensation coverage for all employees. Indeed, you would think that injured workers unable to perform their jobs would quickly latch on to comp, with its 100% health coverage and indemnity benefits. I am puzzled by the absence of any mention of comp benefits. It’s a classic conundrum: these “low road” restaurant operators, with their underpaid, low skilled, limited English speaking workforces, are poor comp risks. Comp benefits may be the only benefits on the table for these workers. On the other hand, it appears that workers comp, at least in this particular study, is off the radar screen. Not only is it not abused (as one might expect it to be), it is not even used for routine treatment of minor workplace injuries. I wonder how much these exploited workers know about their basic rights, from minimum wage and overtime to workers compensation.
It’s food for thought, even as we sit down in a comfortable booth and wait for someone (what did he say his name was?) to deliver our meal.

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