Archive for the News Archive Category

Know Your Kitchen! Workshops: Learn New Skills, Sharpen Your Technique

Posted in News Archive with tags , , , , on April 20, 2010 by pdxrwa

by William Pilgrim
4/20/10

The Portland Restaurant Workers Association (PRWA) is proud to present Know Your Kitchen!, a four part series of job skill training workshops at Bargreen & Ellingson’s test kitchen facility. Led by award winning chef Andrew H. Garrett, workshops begin June 7 and will cover everything from product identification to knife skills and butchery.

The PRWA is hosting these workshops to help restaurant workers refine or acquire new kitchen skills. The Know Your Kitchen! series will be presented with the highest degree of professionalism, while still remaining accessible to the widest possible degree of restaurant workers. The workshops will provide workers with skills they need to advance in the restaurant industry, and allow already familiar workers to hone their skills.

Andrew H. Garrett, who will be leading the classes, began his career at 16 as a dishwasher at a pizzeria in California. Since then he’s arrived in Portland, becoming the Sous Chef at 23 Hoyt and ultimately taking the reigns at Cafe Nell. Garrett is excited to contribute to these workshops. He’s gained recognition through the People’s Choice Award as “Portland’s Original Iron Chef,” the Oregonian’s “Restaurant of the Month” and he continues to receive accolades in the local press for his work.

The Know Your Kitchen! workshops will cover everything from the basics to more advanced skills, catering to both novice and experienced workers. The workshops are provided free of charge, but the participants will be asked to become PRWA Solidarity Members. Space is limited, so registration is required.

For complete details and to register, visit Know Your Kitchen!

Know Your Kitchen! Workshop Schedule:
Classes will be held each Monday in June from 6:00pm – 8:00pm.
6/7/10 : Product Identification & Sanitation and Safety
6/14/10 : Knife Skills
6/21/10 : Stocks and Sauces
6/28/10 : Butchery

Workshop Location:
Bargreen & Ellingson: Foodservice Supply & Design
3232 NW Industrial St.
Portland, OR 97210

Judges Serve Owners a Slice of Tip Control

Posted in News Archive, Tip Pooling & "Tip Out" on March 22, 2010 by pdxrwa

March 23, 2010
by William Pilgrim

The 9th U.S. Court of Appeals handed down a ruling on February 26 that could be a blow to tipped employees.  In the case of Cumbie v. Woody Woo, Inc. the court ruled that tip-pooling is legal in Oregon as long as an employee is paid more than the federally prescribed minimum wage and the tips are not used as credit towards paying that wage.

Under federal regulations tip pools can only include “customarily tipped employees” generally excluding kitchen staff, like dishwashers or cooks, who do not normally receive gratuities from patrons.

Misty Cumbie was a waitress at the Portland restaurant the Vita Cafe. Woo forced his wait staff to pool their tips, 55-70% of which went to back-of-house staff like cooks and dishwashers.  The rest was redistributed to the wait staff based on their proportion of hours worked.  Cumbie, represented by labor attorney Jon Egan, argued that this tip-pooling arrangement was “invalid” because the bulk of a server’s tips went to non-tipped employees. The Secretary of Labor agrees.

The Secretary filed an amicus curiae brief on behalf of Cumbie.  In the brief, the Secretary reaffirmed earlier precedent that “tips, as sums presented to tipped employees by a customer ‘as a gift or gratuity in recognition of some service performed’…are the property of the employee.”

At issue is the concept of a “tip credit.”  Federally, and in 43 states, employers are allowed to apply a percentage of an employee’s tips towards the employer’s minimum wage obligation.  An employee’s cash wage, plus the tips they earn, must meet or exceed the federally prescribed minimum.

Oregon does not allow employers to take a tip credit so Woo argued, successfully in this case, that federal tip pool rules do not apply.

The Secretary stated that, “if the tipped employees did not receive the full federal minimum wage plus all tips received, they cannot be deemed under federal law to have received the minimum wage `free and clear,’ and the money diverted into the invalid tip pool is an improper deduction from wages that violates section [20]6 of the [Fair Labor Standards] Act.” At the hearing, Maria Van Buren, United States Department of Labor, Washington, D.C., argued on behalf of the Secretary of Labor in support of Cumbie.

The court’s opinion, written by Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain, rejected Cumbie and the Secretary’s argument outright, calling their “interpretation of the regulation as plainly erroneous and unworthy of any deference.” Woo was supported by amicus curiae brief from law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, Portland, Oregon, on behalf of the Oregon Restaurant Association, as well as an additional brief from the Nevada Restaurant Association.

O’Scannlain further noted that, “The FLSA does not restrict tip pooling when no tip credit is taken. Therefore, only the tips redistributed to Cumbie from the pool ever belonged to her,” contrary to the Secretary’s interpretation. The Court concluded that, ” the FLSA does not prohibit Woo’s tip-pooling arrangement does not thwart this purpose…Naturally, [Cumbie] would prefer to receive all of her tips, but the FLSA does not create such an entitlement where no tip credit is taken.”

The ruling was a “first impression” for the court, and sets a precedent that could potentially be applied in other states that don’t have a tip credit.  As long as there is a consistently applied, preexisting arrangement between an employer and employee tip pools are valid.  As a condition of being hired, an employer can require an employee to participate in a tip pool, either through a written agreement or as an expressed and consistently applied rule.

An employer cannot take the tips for himself, but can force employees to redistribute those tips and subsidize the wage of non-tipped employees or even managers.  The Oregon Restaurant Association (ORA) is advising employers not to extend tip pools to management staff but notes the ruling “did not expressly prohibit the practice.”

The Oregonian reports that, ORA spokesman Bill Berry said he doubted the ruling would have much impact on Oregon restaurants. But we beg to differ.

As of now, your tips are not your tips until they are redistributed to you.  Cumbie stresses that the issue is not whether tipped workers share their tips with other hard-working coworkers.  The issue is that workers, and not owners, should be in control of the tips they receive.

Attorney Jon Egan is still pushing to have the case heard by a wider court.  He says: “We are disappointed in the three-Judge Panel’s decision. In ruling that employers are free to confiscate and redistribute employees’ tips to back-of-the-house workers, the Panel went against over 35 years of consistent published Department of Labor tip pooling opinions that interpret the Fair Labor Standards Act (the federal law regulating minimum wages and overtime, originally passed by Congress in 1938 and amended many times since then).”

Cumbie’s last hope is to have the case judged en banc. Cumbie and Egan are currently petitioning, and “if a majority of judges vote to take the case up en banc, then a larger panel of 11 judges will be assigned to consider the case from scratch.”

The case may be in limbo, but the ORA notes, “The US Department of Labor does not have to apply the ruling of a District Court, but does have to apply the ruling of a Circuit Court.”  We’ll have to wait to see the true impact.

Workers Stand Up Against Wage Theft in Portland

Posted in News Archive with tags , , , , , , on December 12, 2009 by pdxrwa

by William Pilgrim

Friday December 11th, 2009- NEWLY OPENED RESTAURANT TOAST AND PHO DENIES FORMER WORKERS PAST WAGES.

Restaurant owners Tan Vo and Titi Nguyen of the newly opened Toast and Pho, 101 NW 21st Ave, have been accused of denying an estimated $8,000 in back wages to former employees Teresa Nguyen (no relation), Pedro Rendon, and former General Manager Frank Clow.  Toast and Pho opened November 1st, 2009.

Tan Vo and Titi Nguyen were informed that the workers would be coming today, Friday December 11th, to collect their back wages.  The workers were joined by more than 15 activists who confronted the owners at 11:30 am.  Members of the Portland Restaurant Workers Association (PRWA) Workers Support Committee  and  activists from the worker’s rights community were present for support and solidarity.

The Owners of Toast and Pho were informed in advance that the workers would be attempting to collect their wages Friday, and the workers arrived with formal letters outlining their requests, and Bureau of Labor and Industry (BOLI) Wage Claim forms. Because the ownership failed to keep formal or accurate records of the hours employees worked before the restaurant’s opening, and during its operation, the wages owed are based on employee estimates. Teresa Nguyen is owed over $93.40 in wages and withheld tips, Rendon is owed over $1,000 in wages and overtime for hours worked before the restaurant opened, and Clow is owed $7,000 in salary.

The former employees and the PRWA were asked to leave almost immediately after arriving at Toast and Pho.  The ownership became flustered and hostile, and the police were called.   The PRWA remained in the restaurant until former employee David Sokolowski,acting as a liaison to the police, was informed that only Teresa Nguyen, Rendon, and Clow would be allowed to stay.

The workers were denied their unpaid wages.  As a result, BOLI Wage Claim forms were filed Friday afternoon, and the workers may seek legal recourse.

Toast and Pho have a history of questionable hiring/firing practices, as well as failing to pay their workers.  On November 8th, David Sokolowski and the PRWA participated in another solidarity action in which Sokolowski successfully obtained a week-and-a-half’s worth of back wages.

The PRWA is preparing to return to Toast and Pho for demonstrations on Saturday, December 12th, and will conduct a phone blast from the community to keep the pressure on.

Collective Action Wins Worker’s Back Wages from Toast & Pho

Posted in News Archive with tags , , , , on November 19, 2009 by pdxrwa


by William Pilgrim

David Sokolowski was excited by the promise of starting a full time waiting position at the recently opened Vietnamese/American restaurant Toast & Pho. Toast & Pho, located at 103 NW 21st Ave., opened Sunday, November 1. By Monday Sokolowski was fired, and left unpaid for nearly two weeks of work.  On Sunday, November 8, Sokolowski confronted his former employer, and with help from workers involved with the Portland Restaurant Workers Association (PRWA), Sokolowski received his due.

November 18, 2009

Sokolowski –a six year industry veteran with both quick serve and fine dining experience– left a full-time supervisory position at Pita Pit to help prepare Toast & Pho for its opening.  From the beginning, it was, “pure chaos.” Sokolowski said, “there were a couple times, before the restaurant opened, that I was notified of a training [by suppliers, not restaurant management], meeting or cleaning after the shift had already begun.”

Though the wait staff participated in meetings before the restaurant opened, there was no training provided or expectations established regarding wait staff responsibilities.  Sokolowski says that, “none of the management team had any previous restaurant experience but believed their authority should not be questioned.”  Management removed three of the original five wait staff from the schedule after the first day, without telling the workers they were fired.

A manager told the two remaining members, including Sokolowski, that teams of new trainees would be brought in to compete with them, and if they weren’t the fastest they too would be fired. After working the breakfast shift on November 2, Toast & Pho terminated Sokolowski’s employment but failed to pay his final wages and tips totaling $306.40.

Sokolowski, “felt betrayed.  They were taking advantage of all wait staff workers, and treating them very badly.” The inexperienced managers were demanding and unreasonable, expecting wait staff to take on responsibilities they had never been explained or communicated.  When employees did not meet these expectations, management was abusive, berating employees and threatening their jobs.  Sokolowski recalls that during a busy period, “the owner proceeded to yell at me across the dining area from the kitchen,” for not picking up and delivering food quickly enough.

While at Toast & Pho, Sokolowski witnessed other abuses and violations.  Management did not record hours worked before or after the restaurant was opened, employees did not fill out W-4’s to report their wages.  Wait staff was not given or offered the required 10 and 30 minute breaks during the two days Sokolowski worked. And because only management had access to the computers or money, the wait staff had no way of tracking their tips, or knowing what they’d earned.

Unemployed and uncertain if he would ever be paid, Sokolowski turned to the Portland Restaurant Workers Association (PRWA) for support.  The PRWA’s Workers Support Committee met with Sokolowski on Friday, November 6 to coordinate a plan of action to secure a timely payment of his wages.  With their advice, Sokolowski contacted Toast & Pho by phone and email on Saturday to notify management he would be coming in the next day to pick up his wages.  In his phone exchange, his former manager assured Sokolowski his check was waiting for him.

But, because Toast & Pho had proven itself less than genuine already, Sokolowski and the PRWA prepared for collective and legal action. The PRWA alerted its Solidarity Action Network, designed to provide direct and visible support to workers confronting their employers, that Sokolowski would need their support in case he did not receive his wages on Sunday.  By failing to pay Sokolowski his final wages and tips by the end of the first business day after his discharge, Toast & Pho was in violation of Oregon state law ORS 652.140 and subject to Bureau of Labor & Industry (BOLI) wage claim investigation or civil lawsuit.

When Sokolowski and three PRWA Solidarity Action Network members arrived at Toast & Pho on Sunday, November 8 they were told by his former manager that no paychecks were available and offered Sokolowski a beverage for the “inconvenience.”  Sokolowski was forced to produce a completed W-4 and a BOLI wage claim form before the owner was willing to compensate him.  The owner  immediately said, “write him a check for whatever he wants.”

Sokolowski states:

“They had no idea how much anyone had earned in tips, so they accepted my requested amount without hesitation. They did not account for any of my training, cleaning or waiting hours, so they accepted my requested amount. They attempted to take 30 minutes off of each shift even though no wait staff employee was allowed any 10 or 30 minute breaks for any of shifts, so they retracted that under my demand.”

Toast & Pho were only willing to pay when threatened with legal action, and originally stated that “miscommunication” led Sokolowski to believe that his paycheck would be ready Sunday.  While this was clearly victory for Sokolowski, he still fears that the other three employees, who were fired without notice, have not yet received their pay.  Without access to their contact information, or even the last names of his former coworkers, he has been unable pursue that matter further.

In interviews, Sokolowski was grateful for the prompt support and collective action. Inexperience cannot be an excuse for this kind of behavior in an employer.  With these kinds of systemic abuses built into the management of Toast & Pho, it’s likely that they will continue.  But direct action, with support from other workers, may help, and the PRWA is proud to have assisted.

Congress Poised to Pass Health Care Reform, But Is It Enough?

Posted in News Archive with tags , , , , , , , on October 22, 2009 by pdxrwa

October 21, 2009
by William Pilgrim

Health care reform, and universal coverage, are one step closer after the Senate Finance Committee voted 14-9 October 13 to pass the America’s Healthy Future Act. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), will now work to blend the bill with the Affordable Health Choices Act passed by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee on July 15, 2009.  Debate before the full Senate could begin by the end of this month, and work can begin on the delicate task of combining the Senate proposal with the competing House Tri-Committee’s America’s Affordable Choices Act.

By most measures, the Senate Finance Committee’s version appears to be the leading bill.  At $892 billion over ten years it is the least costly measure, and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that it could shave $81 billion off the federal deficit by 2019.  Unfortunately, it is also the least aggressive and most conservative approach, and the only bill that doesn’t contain a public insurance option. After months of wrangling, and making concessions to appease conservative lawmakers, will the final bill be strong enough to protect workers?

Health care costs are expected to reach $2.5 trillion in 2009, 17.6% of gross domestic product (GDP), with spending is expected to double by 2018.  The United Kingdom, France, Canada, and Japan all spend less than 10% of their GDP on health care, with significantly better health outcomes.  America is the only industrialized nation without universal coverage.  These bills would go a long in way providing coverage to the 45 million uninsured Americans, a number that’s growing as the recession drags on.  When these bills begin being phased in, starting in 2014, it’s estimated that 95% of Americans could be insured.

The acts represent the most comprehensive and far-reaching efforts to expand health care in decades.  They aim to achieve most of the benchmarks President Obama set for reforming health care including: lowering costs while improving quality of care; providing more accessible and affordable care; and eliminating discrimination in offering plans. The Senate Finance Committee’s bill does the least towards accomplishing these goals.

All three competing bills would require some employer contribution. The House bill, America’s Affordable Choices Act, contains the strongest mandates.  The bill would “require employers to offer coverage to their employees and contribute at least 72.5% of the premium cost for single coverage and 65% of the premium cost for family coverage of the lowest cost plan that meets the essential benefits package requirements.”  Employers choosing not to provide coverage would be forced to pay 8% of payroll into a Health Insurance Exchange.

The House bill, and both Senate bills, contain articles that would establish health insurance exchanges through varying mechanisms. Through these exchanges, all state licensed insurers would be forced to participate, making information on premiums and benefits from a variety of plans available to individuals and small businesses shopping for quality insurance. Under the House bill, hardship exemptions are allowed for employers that would be negatively affected by job losses, and the smallest employers, those with payrolls under $500,000, would also be exempt. To encourage employee coverage, though, tax credits would be offered to employers contributing at least 50% to their employees health plans.  In contrast, the Senate Finance Committee’s bill leaves many workers unprotected.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) crafted the America’s Healthy Future Act in an effort to win bipartisan support from Republicans and conservative Democrats.  Of the proposals, this bill contains the weakest protections for workers and only one Republican, Olympia Snowe of Maine, voted for the measure.

Although all Americans would be required to carry insurance, employers with fewer than 50 employees would not be required to offer insurance or be penalized if they don’t. Employers with more than 50 employees would only be penalized if their employees use federal tax credits and subsidies to purchase their own coverage.

Employers with more than 200 employees that do offer health insurance would force any uncovered employees to be automatically enrolled in whatever plan the company provides.  This denies employees the right to choose their own health care and strong-arms them into accepting whatever the company currently offers.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat and long-time supporter of health care reform, was blocked by his own party from amending the bill.  His amendments would have made employers offer the choice of a minimum of three insurance options.  Forcing insurers to compete among employees could have lowered premium costs.

A public insurance option could also force down insurance premiums.  Private, for-profit insurances companies would be forced to lower their premiums and administrative costs in order to compete with a low cost public alternative.  Conservative commentators decry a public option as “socialism”, but enrollment would not be mandatory and no one would be forced onto the plan.  After initial federal support to start a public non-profit insurance entity, the program would be solely funded by the premiums it collects. The America’s Healthy Future Act is the only bill without a public option.

Requiring all Americans to be insured is likely to be a boon to the insurance industry.  All three bills strip the insurance companies of the right to deny coverage because of preexisting conditions and charge higher premiums to women or older insurees.  The insurance industry has fought these profit-encroaching measures for years.  While these measures guarantee more equitable access, the industry stands to gain millions of new clients, and dollars, as rules are phased in requiring the uninsured to find coverage.

There are positive trends in these bills.  Medicaid, which provides federal insurance to the poorest Americans, would be dramatically expanded to include those below 133% to 150% of federal poverty level (FPL).  Those between those levels and 400% of FPL would be provided credits or subsidies on a sliding scale to purchase coverage.

There would also be caps on out-of-pocket expenses and the top 1-3% of the most expensive plans would be taxed to pay for the expansion of coverage.  The bills also support using information technology to reduce administrative cost and better coordinate patient care, as well as shifting focus from the current pay-for-service model to a preventative/wellness based system.

Congress’ most radical proposal, the United States National Health Care Act, was brought to the floor of the House January 26th, 2009, and has received virtually no attention since.  H.R. 676, sponsored by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) would establish a single payer universal health care coverage through the United States National Health Care (USNHC) Program.  This program would provide all individuals residing in the United States and U.S. Territories with free health care.  This would include primary and preventative care, long-term care, emergency care, mental health, as well as dental and vision care.

By raising taxes on the top 5% of wealthiest Americans, adding progressive taxes on payroll and stock and bond transactions, and diverting all federal health care spending to the USNHC program every U.S. resident could be covered.  In the past President Obama has advocated for a single payer system similar to Canada’s.  However, the President now views transitioning to such a system as too disruptive since our health care system has been historically run privately.

But current public options, like Medicare for seniors, are run more cheaply than their private counterparts.  In the case of Medicare Advantage, the privatized portion of Medicare, the cost to the government is 14% more per beneficiary.  H.R. 676 would allow coverage through a variety of insurance providers, but would require all companies providing insurance be run as non-profit.  Removing the profit motive from insurance ensures that what is paid as premiums is used for the health of the beneficiaries, not to pad the pockets of insurance executives.

America can no longer afford to pay more and receive less, while leaving 45 million Americans vulnerable.  The America’s Healthy Future Act may finally bring America closer to the health care reform, but in an effort to receive the stamp of bipartisanship, many progressive ideas have been left  out.  Workers are penalized for not carrying insurance, but there are no strong employer mandates to improve coverage.  And there is no public option to force private insurers, who’ve enjoyed massive profits for years, into real competition.  The America’s Healthy Future Act is certainly an improvement over the current system, which operates with exorbitant rates and little else to show for it.  But it doesn’t go far enough in guaranteeing workers quality, affordable coverage.

Restaurant Uses Pay-to-Apply Scheme to Weed Out the “Riff-Raff”

Posted in News Archive with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 24, 2009 by pdxrwa

August 24, 2009
by William Pilgrim

Urban Restaurants, Inc., which operates Urban Fondue, Bartini, and Pearl Catering in Northwest Portland, recently attempted to charge a $4.50 fee to applicants responding to their Craigslist.com post announcing jobs at upcoming ventures in Sherwood, Portland, and Vancouver, WA. The posting’s full text can be read here at ShamelessRestaurants.com.

Due to pressure from workers and complaints to Craigslist, the original post was pulled down in a matter of hours.

In response to the ad on PortlandFoodandDrink.com, several sympathetic restaurateurs voiced concerns  about the labor-intensive process of sifting through resumes.  One Craigslist posting, for a single position, could yield a hundred resumes, which a potential employer then has to review. A posting as broad as Urban Restaurants’ — “hiring for ALL restaurant, plus catering positions” — could produce hundreds of responses.

The ad, which has been verified as originating from Urban Restaurants, Inc.’s executive chef Kevin Kennedy, states “we had to hire an HR Assistant to process all resumes, therefore, you are kindly requested to send a processing fee of $4.50, through PayPal) [sic] along with your resume.”

However, it’s doubtful that human resources costs are the sole reason Kennedy tried to force workers to pay to apply. Though Kennedy did not respond to the PRWA’s request for comment, in an email sent to a local restaurant manager (and subsequently obtained by the PRWA), Kennedy wrote, “our company has found on the East Coast that it elliminates [sic] the the Riff Raff! These days HR is important and expensive. Good Business!”

Any seasoned industry veteran would be instantly turned off by what Kennedy calls “good business.” The $4.50 fee may seem small, but the cost of conducting business should fall to the employer, not the potential employee. Plus, it’s also an indication of the type of work environment a worker can expect if she or he is lucky enough to be offered a position. What else would an employer like this charge workers for? Will they be expected to use their tips to cover laundry costs or shortages in the register? Will they be expected to work off the clock or otherwise subsidize the costs of doing business?

One of the first job seekers to report the ad to Craigslist on August 8, 2009, who wishes to remain anonymous, was a service-industry veteran offended by what she calls the “scaminess” of charging a worker to apply.   The story was picked up by Portland Food and Drink shortly after.

As a former hiring manager herself, she says that “even if you receive 100 resumes…a quick peak [sic] at the most recent employers will fully take care of that.” If only 100 applicants responded — and an ad as broad as this could easily receive many times that — Urban Restaurants, Inc. would have made $450 to do what many managers do regularly in the course of business. It’s unreasonable to charge an applicant $4.50 to only have their application glanced at, especially if there’s no guarantee of a follow-up interview or phone call.

Unfortunately, there are few protections for potential employees in cases like this. Lake Oswego labor lawyer Jon Egan notes that there are legal protections in Rhode Island against an employer charging application fees, but says, “I haven’t found any other state or federal statutes specifically addressing this issue. There is certainly no Oregon law on this issue.”

Whether or not it’s legal, it is unethical to charge potential employees to pay to apply. Paying Urban Restaurants, Inc. $4.50 only ensures that an assistant will look at a resume. There is no guarantee that the assistant would extensively review a worker’s qualifications or give them the consideration you’d expect from paying to apply. Plus, the implications of this tactic — that workers are “Riff Raff” if they feel uncomfortable paying to apply for a job — are unconscionable, especially given that Oregon’s unemployment rate is hovering around 12 percent.

Given this ad’s quick demise, we hope that other employers take note.

New Bill in Congress May Help Sick Workers

Posted in News Archive with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 12, 2009 by pdxrwa

by William Pilgrim

In response to the hysteria generated by the novel influenza A (H1N1) virus, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) urges workers, “if you have symptoms of influenza-like illness, stay home for 7 days after symptoms begin or until you have been symptom-free for 24 hours, whichever is longer.” The CDC’s advice to employers? Encourage sick employees to stay away from the workplace and to “provide flexible leave policies.”

Unfortunately, it is estimated that nearly 90 percent of restaurant workers are afforded no paid sick leave.  That may soon change if the Healthy Families Act, awaiting approval in the House and Senate, is finally passed.

In the United States alone, “40,617 confirmed and probable infections… have been identified by CDC and state and local public health departments,” since the first case of novel influenza A H1N1 was reported on April 17, 2009.  As October draws closer, ushering in the beginning of the flu season, more and more workers will be faced with the choice of missing work (and potentially being fired) or going to work sick.

Louie Chavez, 24, is a grill cook at a popular cafe in Northwest Portland.  In his six years in the restaurant industry, he has never received a paid sick day or health benefits. Though in the past he’s had the impression that benefits would come some day he says, “After a year of working where I do… I don’t expect to see them at all.”  Chavez says there have been “a few times when there was no one else and [he had] to suck it up and just go” to work while ill. He also had a past employer deny his request to leave after he began feeling nauseous at work.

Restaurant workers, who account for 10 percent of the workforce in Oregon, are among the most vulnerable to airborne illnesses.  As with other strains of flu, H1N1 is spread by person-to-person contact from coughing, sneezing, or contact with bodily fluids. Employees in this industry work in high-traffic areas with numerous points of contact with potentially infected individuals.  Sadly, these workers can least afford to take the CDC’s recommended time off.

A minimum wage worker, working a 33-hour work week, would lose $277 by staying home from work for the seven days suggested by the CDC.  Employees receiving tips lose even more.  Furthermore, few restaurant workers are offered employee health coverage or access to affordable healthcare.   At a time when many Americans are struggling financially, staying home from work because of influenza-like symptoms may not be an option.

There may be hope on the horizon.  So far the cities of San Francisco, Milwaukee, and Washington, D.C. have mandated employee sick leave.  State-level campaigns are developing nationwide.

San Francisco’s Proposition F, passed in 2006, allows any employee to begin accruing paid sick days after 90 calendar days of employment.  Eligible workers are awarded one hour for every 30 hours worked, with a cap of 40 hours for employees of small businesses, and 72 hours for employees of all other businesses. This leave can be accrued from year-to-year, though leave may not exceed the imposed caps.

Nationally, the Healthy Families Act was introduced in the House and Senate late last May by Rep. Rosa DeLauro [D-CT] and Senator Ted Kennedy [D-MA].  The bill is now awaiting approval in the Committee on Education and Labor, the Committees on Oversight and Government Reform, and House Administration.

The Healthy Families Act would require certain employers, at businesses employing 15 or more workers during each working day for 20 or more workweeks a year, to allow employees to accrue at least one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, up to a maximum of 56 hours.  This sick leave will allow workers to seek medical attention for themselves, or for, ”a child, a parent, a spouse, or any other individual …whose close association with the employee is the equivalent of a family relationship.” The bill also allows employees to use paid sick leave for an absence resulting from domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking.

The Healthy Families Act is a commendable first step in protecting workers.  Both full-time and part-time employees at the required businesses would be afforded sick leave in the current bill.  The bill also states that employees cannot be required to cover, or search for a replacement, for any sick leave they take.  The Healthy Families Act could also allow same-sex couples or LGBT families leave to care for their partners or children, since many of these families are not covered under traditional, privately offered plans.

According to calculations from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), by providing mandatory leave, “our national economy would experience a net savings of $1.8 billion a year due to increased productivity and reduced turnover.”  Providing sick leave to the more than 170,000 restaurant workers in Oregon would save $9 million a year.

Unfortunately, powerful anti-worker lobbies, like the Oregon Restaurant Association (ORA), have already come out against mandatory sick leave to employees.  The ORA believes that “flexible” work hours and schedules provided by restaurants best meet the needs of their employees, and that “many” restaurants offer a paid-time-off benefits structure that would be threatened by mandatory employee sick leave.

The Healthy Families Act is not a universal solution to public health worries or workers’ rights.  If the act passes in its current form, 30 percent of restaurant workers would still be ineligible for paid leave because their workplaces’ employ fewer than 15 workers.  However, the Healthy Families Act remains a bold initiative towards providing a greater number of food service workers with paid sick leave considering that, according to most estimates, only 10 to 20 percent of current restaurant workers are offered any paid leave.

With the flu season approaching, Congress and the nation cannot afford delay passage of the Healthy Families Act. Although many restaurant workers would still not be covered, it’s an important first step in ensuring that every worker can take care of themselves, or their loved ones, in the event of an illness.  And we can no longer accept a system that encourages low-income workers, especially those handling our food, to work sick in fear of lost wages or retaliation.

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