Restaurant report under fire in Northampton

Industry leaders label survey an ‘affront’ to hard-working trade

  • Spoleto employee Chad Furnelli, 33, of Chicopee, talks about working in the restaurant industry Friday afternoon at Spoleto in Northampton. DAN LITTLE

  • Sierra Grill owner O'Brian Tomalin on Friday afternoon in Northampton. DAN LITTLE—Daily Hampshire Gazette

  • Spoleto employee Marjorie Britton, 27, of Northampton, talks about working in the restaurant industry Friday afternoon at Spoleto in Northampton. DAN LITTLE—Daily Hampshire Gazette

  • Sierra Grill owner O’Brian Tomalin pours a draught of the Building 8 IPA Friday in Northampton. DAN LITTLE

  • Spoleto employee Chad Furnelli, 33, of Chicopee, talks about working in the restaurant industry Friday afternoon at Spoleto in Northampton. DAN LITTLE—Daily Hampshire Gazette

  • Spoleto employee Chad Furnelli, 33, of Chicopee, talks about working in the restaurant industry Friday afternoon at Spoleto in Northampton. DAN LITTLE—Daily Hampshire Gazette

  • Spoleto employees Marjorie Britton, 27, of Northampton, left, and Chad Furnelli, 33, of Chicopee, talk about working in the restaurant industry Friday afternoon at Spoleto in Northampton. DAN LITTLE—Daily Hampshire Gazette

  • Bartender Eddy Hougen talks with Chuck Kaselouskas, of East Longmeadow, Friday afternoon at Sierra Grill in Northampton. Dan Little

Published: 3/26/2016 12:11:01 AM

NORTHAMPTON — A report released earlier this week criticizing working conditions in Northampton restaurants continues to draw fire. But advocates say the problem runs even deeper than their current data suggests. 

Massachusetts Restaurant Association CEO Bob Luz has denounced the study as “absurd,” “ludicrous” and an “affront” to an industry he calls the “land of hope and opportunity” for many hardworking, often socioeconomically challenged individuals.

“If this report was truly indicative of how bad the industry is out there, those employees would move to another employer,” Luz said. “There are plenty of great employers out there. No one is being held hostage.”

The study, conducted over the course of two years by the University of Massachusetts Amherst Labor Center and Pioneer Valley Workers Center, a local low-wage and immigrant workers’ advocacy group, found that 78 percent of 235 surveyed workers do not make a living wage — pay high enough to maintain a basic standard of living as a single person. In Northampton, Living Wage Western Mass has calculated this rate to be $13.18 per hour.

This was one of several findings that indicates restaurant workers are not fairly compensated. In the report, 65 percent said they had never received overtime pay and 22 percent said they had worked off the clock, without pay, in the past year. Among other working condition violations, 94 percent reported not receiving health insurance from an employer, and 95 percent said they did not have access to paid sick time or vacation time. 

“Do you really think, logically speaking, does anybody believe for a second that 95 percent of employers don’t offer health insurance?” Luz said. “The numbers just don’t make sense.”

With 15,000 food and beverage operations in Massachusetts, Luz said, “every once in a while you’re going to have a bad egg.” Still, he is confident that government agencies are well-equipped to monitor restaurants and deal with those that violate the law. 

“There are rules and regulations in place and very strong departments that enforce them,” he said. “These are broad-brush accusations from an organization that clearly has an agenda and quite honestly finds a sympathetic ear in the media.”

The report, Luz said, is nothing more than “propaganda” and an effort by large, national unions to stir the pot in Western Massachusetts. 

Workers’ Center responds

But Pioneer Valley Workers’ Center coordinator Rose Bookbinder says this characterization is not only false but “insulting,” as it demeans the ability of individuals to think for themselves. 

“We’re not pushing any ideas or agendas on workers,” Bookbinder said. “They have their own brains and the power to make their own decisions.”

Though the nonprofit center supports collective bargaining as one of the strongest tactics workers can use to advocate for their rights, and will match employees with unions when they are interested, it plays a very different role from a union and focuses primarily on training, she said. 

In the case of recent efforts by Hotel Northampton workers to unionize, Bookbinder said, the workers’ center helped build community support and was involved in the “Right to Organize” resolution passed by the City Council, but did not play a role in organizing the workers. 

Though the center is “in coalition with national organizations,” she said, no national union organizers are “engaged in the day-to-day” operations of the center.

Meanwhile, the National Restaurant Association, Bookbinder said, has been “suppressing workers’ voices and wages for decades,” lobbying to keep wages down. In fact, she said, the organization, which represents businesses, is a “big reason why workers’ centers and unions need to exist.”

It’s unfair to suggest people can simply leave and find a new place to work, Bookbinder said. 

“It’s not easy to just walk away from a job if you’re living paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “You put up with exploitation and bad working conditions because you need to put food on your table.”

Diana Sierra, an organizer with the Pioneer Valley Workers’ Center, works with many of the city’s undocumented workers. She said many are fleeing terrible situations in other countries, only to find themselves being mistreated in U.S. restaurants. Since these workers are typically the most difficult to get information about, she said, they are underrepresented in the report.

The report includes data collected through face-to-face 100-question surveys with 235 workers from 85 unique restaurants in Northampton. Of those surveyed, 30 were foreign-born and 205 were born in the U.S., according to a report appendix. 

“The people that are the most exploited are the least represented in the study,” Sierra said.

The report’s respondents also skew white and a majority had front-of-the-house positions, meaning “in reality conditions are a lot worse” than the data suggests, Bookbinder said. 

‘Wage theft’

Though strong rules exist, Bookbinder said enforcement cannot keep up with the number of violations being reported. The center hopes to get the City Council to adopt a “wage theft” ordinance, which would tie food and liquor licenses to compliance of wage and hour laws. 

Sierra said that undocumented workers have the right to minimum wage and described a wage theft ordinance as a good “starting point,” as it gives employers more of an incentive to follow existing laws. 

“There’s widespread breaking of the laws — a law is only good if you enforce it,” she said. “And if the city does nothing, they’re giving a message to employers that they can exploit their workers.”

Indeed, Mike Araujo, New England policy director for Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a national organization that advocates for better wages and working conditions, said wage theft is widespread, and particularly rampant when it comes to tipped employees. 

In Massachusetts, tipped employees are paid $3.35 per hour plus tips. If workers’ tips do not bring them to the minimum wage, $10 an hour, employers are required to make up the difference. But this rarely happens in practice, Araujo said. 

And because rates of abuse are so high, he said, responding to all violations “would burden even the best-staffed department of labor, with the best research tools, in the best circumstances.”

From his perspective, moving away from a two-tier wage system for servers and kitchen staff would help address the issue and level the playing field. 

In Northampton, Haymarket Cafe announced such a move last fall, eliminating tipping and increasing the starting wage to $14 for all workers.

Araujo said he understands some are attached to the current model. 

“The argument is that in one shift a server could make a couple hundred dollars,”  Araujo said. “The fact is most servers aren’t making money like that.”

Instead, he said, the poverty rate among tipped workers in Massachusetts is much higher than among the general public, and tipped workers cost Massachusetts more than $2 million per month in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

Harassment, human trafficking and health violations are also widespread, he said. Overall, Araujo said, the restaurant industry is a “system that’s crying for reform.”

The system

Spoleto employees Marjorie Britton, 27, of Northampton and Chad Furnelli, 33, of Chicopee are rattled by the workers’ center report, noting they have both been able to make a living wage working in restaurants and love what they do, and believe the study unfairly paints all employers in a bad light. 

“We’re reaping the benefits just as much as our owner,” Furnelli said.

Both dismissed the idea of moving away from a tip model, as they said that sort of performance-based, constantly shifting environment is where they thrive. They said there’s a certain balance to the system: kitchen staff make more during slow weeks, and servers make more when business is good. 

O’Brian Tomalin, who owns  Sierra Grill, said moving away from a two-tier system would likely be untenable for him financially. 

He said he pays his workers the legal rate: servers start at $4 an hour plus tips, and very rarely, he said, does he have to pay to bring their wages up to minimum wage.

His dishwashers make $10 an hour, Tomalin said, and his chefs make between $11 and $17 per hour depending on experience, skill and years with the company. His employees sometimes get paid sick time, he said, but no benefits.

Hidden costs, he said, prevent him from paying more. He said the fuel surcharge, for instance, costs him about $100 a week. His electric bill during air conditioning season runs at about $3,000 per month, Tomalin said, and he pays about $100,000 a year in rent. The other day, he said, he had to replace an ice machine at a cost of $1,800.

“And this week I had two sets of salt and pepper shakers taken,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like a big deal but it adds up over the years.”

Tomalin equated profit margins to a “small piece of the pie,” once expenses are taken out.

If it came to paying servers a flat wage, he said, he’d likely not get the same people applying for jobs and he’s not sure he could even swing it financially.

“It’s the system,” he said. “In a full-service restaurant, I don’t think you could even do away with tipping.”

When it comes to his employees, Tomalin said, he tries to get out ahead of problems. He recently had a dishwasher, he said, who wanted to go out on a date with one of the servers and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Upon hearing about it from the server, Tomalin said he confronted the dishwasher and told him to leave her alone. Instead, he said, the dishwasher fired back at her for telling.

“So I suspended him for a week,” Tomalin said. “I don’t stand for that.”

Tomalin said he’s not in the business for the money. He said with the margins as low as they are, the only way to make money is to own multiple successful restaurants. For him, he said, it’s about feeding and taking care of people in a social environment.

“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he said.

Amanda Drane can be reached at Stephanie McFeeters can be reached at 

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