Check Please! Workers, Activists Nationwide Take Action Against Wage Theft

San Francisco, with its Victorian buildings and ethnic neighborhoods, each with a personality of its own, has long been a destination spot for tourists.

Every year the city’s Chinatown district, one of the oldest in North America, draws visitors who love the little shops, fresh fish and vegetables and the abundance of restaurants specializing in authentic Chinese food. More than 100 restaurants line the 0.13 square miles that is Chinatown.

Less apparent are the conditions many of the restaurant workers endure. Low to below-minimum wages, unpaid wages, unsafe working conditions and the lack of enough city personnel to enforce violations allow some restaurant owners to run their own personal little fiefdoms—and chronically violate San Francisco’s progressive labor laws. “Check Please!”, a study recently released by the Chinese Progressive Association, makes all this clear.

Today, members of the San Francisco Progressive Workers Alliance (PWA), labor activists, workers, youth, faith leaders and elected officials across the nation are taking action on this under-reported issue as part of today’s National Day of Action Against Wage Theft.

Wage theft includes withheld, delayed or unpaid wages and employers taking a portion of the workers tips. Last week, Working In These Times contributor Art Levine reported about this national effort to bring attention to the issue of wage theft:

The people most likely to be mistreated are immigrants, some of whom are undocumented, or, workers who are poor and don’t want to lose the little work they have, especially in this economy. These circumstances are enough to keep a mistreated worker quiet.

Wage theft and worker mistreatment don’t only take place in restaurants and in Chinatown. This happens across the city—and the nation—in an array of jobs, from construction sites, homes, factories, to retail stores, nursing homes and other work sites.

They are day laborers, caregivers, waiters and waitresses, farmworkers (as Michelle Chen reported yesterday), salespeople, maids and housekeepers. They serve your coffee, clean your house, watch the elderly and/or children; they build homes and offices and tend lawns and gardens, and harvest the very food you eat.

‘Rampant’ Wage Theft in Oakland

In the Bay Area, PWA is bridging language and communities, representing hundreds of Latino, African Americans, Asians, elders, youth and LGBT workers fighting against wage theft.

These workers and their allies are supporting the passage of the Low Wage Workers Bill of Rights, which calls for jobs and training, enforcement of labor laws, and equal treatment for all workers. They are also supporting national legislation that speaks to wage theft prevention.

As part of its mission, the group states: “A full economic recovery must include putting people back to work, and making sure existing jobs are living wage jobs.”

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Kim Bobo, founder and executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice based in Chicago, announced today that more than 4,800 have signed the petition to support efforts to end wage theft. A little over $6,000 has been raised to the campaign, with a goal to reach $10,000 through donations across the country.

Wage Theft ‘Much More Common Than People Realize’

“Check Please!” focuses on restaurant workers in Chinatown, documenting their struggle for survival in often sweatshop conditions.

The Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) in partnership with the San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH), University of California, San Francisco Medical School, University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health and the Labor Occupational Health Program (LOHP) launched this study.

It was based on surveys of 433 restaurant workers and observational data of more than 100 restaurants looking at working conditions, stressful and hazardous work places, and health code and safety violations.

Among the findings: Wage theft in Chinatown restaurants was found to be higher than the national average. According to the report, one in two workers reported minimum wage violations.

Forty-two percent of the workers reported working more than 40 hours a week and half of those, more than 60 hours a week. According to the study, 27 percent of the workers earned $6.25 per hour, 13 percent earn $5 or below an hour—far below the minimum wage of $9.36.

Workers also reported not getting time off for sick days, although San Francisco has mandatory paid sick leave, The survey found that 42 percent of the workers had their wages deducted if they called in sick.

Meredith Minkler, professor of Public Health at UC Berkeley and principal investigator of the study said, “I know of no other study that has surveyed such a large population of low wage immigrant restaurant workers. “

“Wage theft is much more common than people realize,” Tiffany Crain of Young Workers United in San Francisco told In These Times:

In our interviews with restaurant workers last year, we found that almost 60 percent were still not receiving paid sick leave. The worker centers in the Progressive Workers Alliance encounter workers daily that are experiencing wage theft. That is part of the reason why we have come together.

Some employers are better than others, however and suppporting responsible businesses are part of what Young Workers United does. The organization developed a “Dining for Justice” restaurant guide to highlight the responsible businesses in San Francisco and the business owners who play fair.

The findings in “Check, Please!” however, are symptomatic of unregulated low wage jobs nationwide. As the report stated,

There is no question that ending sweatshop conditions and changing the climate of low-road employment practices will take time, investments and serious commitment on the part of the city and community.

Ultimately, the high road is the only road that can lead to a healthy Chinatown where workers have stable living wage jobs, local businesses compete fairly and grow, customer and public health are protected, and the community can thrive.

Developing solutions is the responsibility of the entire community—workers, employers, community, consumers, and the government.

Said San Francisco City Supervisor Eric Mar in the report, “With the economy as tough as it is, we cannot afford to ignore the dangers of rampant wage theft and a situation where 95 percent of workers earn below a living wage.”