Justice To-Go: Marty Walsh Must Champion Workers in RESTAURANTS Act

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by Colleen Koperek

A restaurant worker in Boston’s Chinatown looks up from their work. December 3, 2020. Photo by Benjamin Rector.

We as Boston DSA members are in a unique position to push for workers to be included in upcoming bailout legislation. We have not only incoming Secretary of Labor, former Mayor of Boston and Union man himself, Marty Walsh, starting his new gig but noted progressive, Representative Ayanna Pressley, MA-7, representing us. It is up to us as constituents to hold our electeds accountable and ask them to not vote for any stimulus packages, particularly the RESTAURANTS Act, unless 50% of the funds can be guaranteed to cover payroll expenses. 

In the early morning hours of Friday, February 5, 2021, many pieces of legislation were passed, including a $25 billion bailout specifically for restaurants. This is the second piece of legislation floated to address the issues facing the food service industry during COVID, and while this is welcome news to the millions of out-of-work restaurant employees, there are exactly zero provisions in either bill requiring any amount of funds be guaranteed for keeping workers on the payroll in the bill. 

It is estimated that one in four jobs lost in April 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic were from the food service industry; at the same time the year previous there were around 14 million employees. Those who have returned to work have to take on higher risk than many other industries. One study from the University of California, San Francisco, suggested that line cooks have the highest risk of mortality during COVID, with deaths increasing by 60% for the profession during the first seven months of the pandemic. This leaves workers with a terrible choice: go to work and risk potentially dying, or stay home and starve. 

Restaurant workers face grave danger, and the institutions that employ them are struggling as well; with no revenue, there’s no way to pay rent, utilities and creditors. It is estimated that 17% of restaurants have closed since the beginning of the pandemic; this number balloons to 24% of minority-owned business. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, 41% of Black-owned, 32% of Latinx-owned and 36% of Asian-owned businesses saw a reduction in business due to the pandemic.

To address this, the RESTAURANTS Act, H.R. 7197, was proposed on June 15, 2020 by Representative Blumenauer (D-OR) and passed in the House in October of 2020 to provide $120 billion in relief and includes “prioritize(ing) awarding grants to marginalized and underrepresented communities.” The Senate has passed an additional stimulus with $25 billion specifically intended for restaurant relief. However, the RESTAURANTS Act as a standalone bill could be passed at any point in the near future. The bill came together through efforts by the National Restaurant Association (NRA), which has previously lobbied against raising the minimum wage in 27 states and blocked paid sick leave legislation in 12 states. The NRA represents the interests of large corporations and restaurant owners, and the industry group has teamed up with celebrity chefs to rally the public in support of the bill. 

The RESTAURANTS Act itself calls for billions in aid to be paid directly to restaurants as a grant and like the $25 billion bill passed on February 5, it contains no language mandating that any percentage of the funds go directly towards keeping workers on the payroll. It’s clear whose interest this bill serves. The overly vague language and lack of oversight would be a boon to unscrupulous restaurant owners. The blank check that is being floated right now is a tacit approval of the most widespread labor abuse that occurs in restaurants: wage theft. 

Wage theft is one of the more pedestrian labor abuses in the industry, but it is rampant. Because there is little oversight, the problems are myriad and affect both front-of-house, like servers and bussers, and back-of-house, like cooks and dishwashers. Some issues are more indicative of larger problems within the industry, such as the tipped wage system, but others originate from owners looking to cut corners, knowing they won’t face any consequences. For example, I used to work as a line cook at a small, fine dining restaurant that opened to the public for dinner service at 5pm. Management would not allow line cooks to clock in before 3pm, no matter how much prep work we had to do. So for instance, on a holiday like Valentine’s Day, there’s extra work that goes into preparing specials that run just for that day, and we’re trying to make everything extra nice for the guests; this means I have to show up early, not get paid for hours of prep work, stop everything at 3pm, clock in and then finally I can start getting paid. Meanwhile, the restaurant is booked solid and upcharging for prix fixe. Beyond the pride in my work, I get nothing for putting in extra time, while the owner gets to pocket the extra profit, including those hours I didn’t get paid for. 

If I was starting my shift with no respect for my labor, I would expect that disrespect would continue if the owners were handed a blank check. 

“Despite being one of the largest industries in the country, there was no voice for workers,” said Jake Douglas, of the Steering Committee of DSA’s national Democratic Socialist Labor Commission, by phone. According to Douglas, less than 2% of food service workers are unionized, and that is largely concentrated within hotels and airports. Some members of the Democratic Socialists of America started the Restaurant Organizing Project (ROP) in March 2020 to teach chapters how to organize laid off restaurant workers. Currently ROP has between 100-200 active organizers within it’s network, spread across the country, with about 10 strong local chapters. 

Since December 2020, ROP has been working with Restaurant Workers United, a UNITE HERE- affiliated group of food service workers focused on unionizing efforts. They are now concentrating on amending the RESTAURANTS Act to save restaurant workers’ jobs. 

And here is where I ask you, members of Boston DSA, to please get involved. We are asking you not only to get Marty’s attention before he leaves to go to D.C., but we are asking you to please contact Representative Pressley’s office to ask them not to vote for or endorse  the RESTAURANTS Act or any bailout bill until amendments are made to ensure that 50% of the money that restaurants receive through the bill, or any stimulus package directed at restaurants, is guaranteed to cover payroll. Previous stimulus packages, such as PPP, mandated that 60% of funds received be reserved for payroll, while this bill has no such protections for worker’s paychecks. We keep hearing the cry of “pay them to stay home,” and now you can answer that call. Instrumental to the success of this proposed amendment is public pressure on electeds, and while our Congresswoman has an excellent track record, we must keep her accountable. Both can also be reached via phone: the Mayor of Boston’s number is 617-635-4500 and Representative Pressley’s office can be reached at 617-850-0040 or 202- 225-5111. 

Restaurants need help, but most importantly, restaurant workers need help, especially as access to unemployment benefits is uneven at best. You cannot have a restaurant without workers. If the restaurant itself is bailed out and uses the money to pay rent, well, you simply have a kitchen with a huge dining room attached. It’s high time we started centering the worker experience when drafting bailout legislation and amending the RESTAURANTS Act is a tangible way to effect positive change. Please contact Representative Pressley (617-850-0040 or 202- 225-5111) and Mayor Marty Walsh (617-635-4500) and ask them to not to support any legislation that does not include explicit mandates that bailout funds go directly towards keeping workers on the payroll. 

More information about ROP can be found here. Restaurant Worker United’s (RWU) petition can be found here.

Colleen Koperek is a Boston DSA member who hopes readers support their local immigrant-run restaurants.

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