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Northampton restaurant workers add stories to report’s statistics

  • Diana Sierra speaks during a press conference held to discuss recent research findings about the local restaurant industry Thursday at Edwards Church. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Jonathan Alvarez speaks as Diana Sierra interprets his Spanish during a press conference held to discuss recent research findings about the local restaurant industry Thursday at Edwards Church. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Lin Geng speaks during a press conference held to discuss recent research findings about the local restaurant industry Thursday at Edwards Church. JERREY ROBERTS

  • Bess Hepner, at podium, speaks during a press conference held to discuss recent research findings about the local restaurant industry Thursday at Edwards Church. JERREY ROBERTS

  • The audience applauds during a press conference held to discuss recent research findings about the local restaurant industry Thursday at Edwards Church. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Peter Simpson, who is the owner of Haymarket Cafe, speaks during a press conference held to discuss recent research findings about the local restaurant industry Thursday at Edwards Church. In October, he eliminated tipping and increased his starting wage to $14 for all workers. JERREY ROBERTS—



@amandadrane
Friday, April 08, 2016

NORTHAMPTON — At a Pioneer Valley Workers Center press conference Thursday that aired issues facing Northampton restaurant workers, labor organizers said they would like to acknowledge restaurants that are following the laws and paying a living wage.

Rose Bookbinder, an organizer for the workers center, said the organization is just beginning to compile a list of those “striving to follow the laws” and “provide a living wage for their workers,” which so far consists of Haymarket, Green Bean, The Roost, Pie Bar, and Lhasa Cafe. She encouraged more restaurant owners to come speak with her about their practices.

Bookbinder mentioned the idea in response to a question from an audience member, who asked for a list that could help consumers looking to dine at establishments with “high-road” employment practices.

Volkan Polatol, owner of Bishop’s Lounge and Mulino’s, said the idea was a good one.

“That’ll at least separate the good ones from bad ones,” he said following the event.

The conference, during which five restaurant employees spoke alongside local labor leaders, follows a report released by the workers center and the University of Massachusetts Labor Center that found 78 percent of workers surveyed made less than a living wage, 70 percent of those surveyed were not paid overtime and 30 percent experienced sexual harassment on the job.

The report has come under fire in recent weeks as restaurant owners attempt to make sense of the findings. Polatol, among others, said it generalized unfairly about Northampton restaurants.

Thursday’s event was held, organizers said, to give voice to some of the employees behind the report.

Pearl Silverman talked about how she was forced to work with a man who regularly sexually harassed her, while Lin Geng, who works as a chef in Northampton, said he’s worked in U.S. restaurants for 14 years and has never made as much as minimum wage.

Jonathan Alvarez, who has also made less than minimum wage at Northampton restaurants, thanked those in attendance for coming.

“I want to thank everyone who came here today to show your support and to demonstrate that the voices of workers matter,” he said through a translator.

Bess Hepner, both a Northampton server and an organizer with the center, said more employees would have come if not for long hours on the job and the fear of backlash.

“Like many other restaurant workers in Northampton, a lot of my co-workers work 12-hour days, six days a week, so most of them are at work right now and were not able to make it,” said Hepner.

As someone who grew up in Northampton, Hepner said, it’s no bubble.

“Northampton keeps a really good secret,” she said. “Behind those kitchen doors, most of the workers are undocumented.”

The conversation

In the weeks since the report’s release, the statistics highlighted have kick-started a conversation around Northampton restaurants.

Some restaurant owners say the report paints an incomplete picture.

“The concern that I’ve heard from restaurants is that the report makes broad generalizations with a limited amount of information,” said Suzanne Beck, executive director of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce.

Clare Hammonds, UMass professor of practice who co-authored the study, said workers using the center as a resource highlighted the need for this type of intensive restaurant study. Because of the fluid nature of restaurants, she said, there is no complete list that would enable a random sampling and so instead authors used a convenience sampling method. That, she said, entailed catching workers exiting the workplace, in-house referrals, and cold-calling.

Hammonds said wage issues arose in three main areas: off-the-clock work, unpaid overtime and tipped workers doing substantial amounts of untipped work.

“These trends are not entirely unique — what has been unique here is that this a community with really a plethora of locally owned businesses and a really sort of wide-spread commitment to sustainability and to producing high-quality, ethically grown food,” Hammonds said. “Jobs in the restaurants need to match that commitment to sustainability.”

Jocelyn Jones, labor lawyer and former deputy chief of the Fair Labor Division of the state attorney general’s office, said restaurant owners who evade the law set a bad precedent.

“It’s not just about justice for workers,” said Jones, adding that justice is, however, very much a priority. “It’s time for (restaurants breaking laws) not to have a free ride.”

Ward 1 City Councilor Maureen Carney was acknowledged as a supportive member of the audience, while organizers passed around a petition urging city councilors to pass a wage theft ordinance.

Also discussed during the conference was support for One Fair Wage, proposed legislation at the state level that would eliminate the sub-minimum wage, under which tipped employees make less, and a push for employers to pay every worker at least $13.18 an hour.

Polatol said most of the employees at his establishments make well over a living wage, but that entry-level positions like dishwashing belong at minimum wage. He said if he were to pay his dishwashers $13 an hour then he’d have to also pay his skilled staff more, which in turn would drive up prices.

“You don’t just raise one person — it forces labor costs up 30-40 percent,” he said, adding that he’s already feeling pressure to raise prices given rising costs of doing business in Northampton. “That’s a huge margin that I have to make up — not because I want to but because I have to stay in business.”

Amanda Drane can be reached at adrane@gazettenet.com.