Diana Sierra and Bess Hepner: Workers’ voices still missing from restaurant debate

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

Thursday, April 21, 2016

On March 21, the UMass Labor Center and the Pioneer Valley Workers Center released a white paper about working conditions in Northampton restaurants.

The study surveyed 235 workers from 85 local restaurants. The PVWC also called on City Council to pass a wage-theft ordinance, which would require Northampton businesses to comply with labor laws in order to obtain or renew their licenses.

The results of the surveys reveal the scale of workplace injustice. For example, three in four restaurant workers of the 235 polled do not making a living wage ($13.18 an hour), while one in four employees are sexually harassed at work. 

The report also reveals that 70 percent of workers do not receive overtime pay when working more than 40 hours. Sub-minimum wages and the absence of overtime pay constitute wage theft, meaning that some employers have pocketed money workers earned.

We believe the report’s statistics are conservative, given that “back-of-the house” workers and immigrant and undocumented workers were underrepresented. Many workers declined to conduct surveys due to fears of employer retaliation.

The public has not sufficiently heard from workers. In the first week of coverage, Gazette reporters quoted eight restaurant owners and three workers, including two white workers who receive a living wage.

Unfortunately, the positive experiences of the quoted workers do not reflect the reality for the majority of Northampton workers, as the report demonstrates.

White workers on average make more than workers of color and are less often confined to low-paying “back-of-the-house” jobs.

Undocumented workers, workers of color, and “back-of-the-house” workers have been ignored in local discussions about the report. The public deserves to hear directly from the workers most impacted by wage theft.

A man who is a refugee from Honduras now earns sub-minimum wage at a Northampton restaurant. State violence and migration to the United States dramatically increased after the 2009 U.S-backed military coup of a democratically elected president.

Furthermore, the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) has gutted wages and expanded corporate power. In response, this Honduran man risked his life crossing multiple borders and now works in our city. He makes $5.50 an hour and receives no overtime pay or benefits.

Another young man from El Salvador migrated to Northampton in 2012 in order to escape gang death threats and support his family. He has worked in three local restaurants where he has faced injuries, verbal harassment and sub-minimum wages.

His current employer pays $13 an hour, an improvement in comparison to previous jobs, but he does not pay overtime. He questions the anger of restaurant owners in response to the report: “If a boss is following the laws as they should, then why are they afraid?”

U.S.-born workers are not immune from abuse. They told interviewers working with the labor center that they face inappropriate touching and ongoing sexual harassment.

These workplace injustices are a well-kept secret.

We hope our community will act in solidarity with workers. Some of the people who cook, serve and clean up our food in our “Happy Valley” community are having their wages stolen from them and they face risks at work. How can we as a community respond with anger and resentment?

We encourage local residents to call on the City Council to pass a wage-theft ordinance, which would protect all Northampton workers, regardless of industry and legal status, from wage theft. This model was implemented in Boston in 2013 and in Cambridge last month; five other cities in Massachusetts are pending approval. The struggles of employers — real or exaggerated — are no excuse for breaking the law.

We cannot debate the indisputable: workers are legally entitled to the minimum wage, overtime pay and other labor protections.

When one employer is allowed to violate labor laws, it not only pushes down wages for all workers but also puts at a competitive disadvantage those employers who are following wage and hour laws.

As a community, will we endorse exploitation or collectively stop wage theft and stand with the most exploited workers?

Diana Sierra is a PVWC organizer. Bess Hepner is a restaurant worker and PVWC intern.