Labor Laws at the Table

By Eva Moore
Wednesday, September 3, 2014
According to the report, “the median hourly wage in the restaurant industry, including tips, is $10, compared with $18 outside of the restaurant industry.”
In The Post and Courier last week, food writer Hanna Raskin ran a long investigative piece on labor law violations by Charleston restaurants. It’s an important piece, well worth a read. In it, Raskin shows how violations in the Holy City caused restaurant workers to lose out on hundreds of thousands of dollars in wages over the past decade. Following audits by the U.S. Department of Labor, some restaurants have had to pay a few hundred dollars in back wages; others, many thousands.

Most surprising is that although many of the restaurants are sports bars and chains, some are among the city’s fancier eateries.

The restaurants cited included everything from Huddle House and Nathan’s Deli to Toast, The Noisy Oyster and Cowboy Brazilian Steakhouse. A restaurant called Señor Tequila had to pay more than $100,000 in back wages.

O-Ku and The Macintosh were both cited; they’re part of the Indigo Road restaurant group, which also runs The Oak Table here in Columbia. According to Raskin, the owners were open with her about their earlier mistakes, “own[ing] up to all of the violations, which they say stemmed from failing to address entrenched restaurant practices, such as paying by the shift instead of the hour.” The group has hired an HR attorney to help it comply with labor law going forward.

Another of those entrenched restaurant practices is “staging,” Raskin writes, in which rising chefs essentially intern for free, working alongside other chefs to hone their skills. “Yet what makes the practice especially egregious in Charleston, according to a former FIG cook, is the rite of passage doesn’t seem to lead anywhere,” she writes. While a sous chef in New York City might make $70,000, a Charleston sous chef makes half that, so the hours put in for free aren’t translating into better wages down the line.

More common violations include forcing employees to work longer than their clocked-in shifts, requiring pooling of tips, not paying overtime, and in some cases even falsifying records or charging extra fees.

It’s troubling because, as a report from the Economic Policy Institute last week showed, around 40 percent of restaurant workers in America live in poverty or near poverty.

According to the report, “the median hourly wage in the restaurant industry, including tips, is $10, compared with $18 outside of the restaurant industry.” Restaurant workers rarely receive benefits. And the racial and gender disparities in the industry are severe, with black people “disproportionately likely to be cashiers/counter attendants, the lowest-paid occupation in the industry,” and Hispanics “disproportionately likely to be dishwashers, dining room attendants, or cooks, also relatively low-paid occupations.”

Restaurant workers pull long hours; it’s part of the ethic of the industry.

But plenty of restaurants manage to follow the law and pay their employees fairly.

In the end, Raskin’s piece is a call to arms for the restaurants with the power to, say, reform factory farming to turn their attention to fair wages for their own workers.

How does Columbia measure up? We’re looking into it.

Beltline Lizard’s Thicket Open Again
Following some renovations, the Lizard’s Thicket at 402 Beltline Boulevard reopened last week. It now has a green metal roof and big covered porch, like other Lizard’s Thicket locations, among other renovations. Visit lizardsthicket.com for more information.

Let us know what you think: Email food@free-times.com.

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