Last week, New York State’s Department of Labor issued a press release announcing the findings of a recent investigation of restaurants in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope. From the release:
In April 29, 2009, sixteen Department of Labor investigators paid surprise visits to 25 restaurants and coffee shops along Fifth and Seventh Avenues, from late afternoon to ten o’clock at night. Only two of the restaurants were found in compliance, while 23 had minimum wage, overtime, and other basic wage violations. After inspecting the 25 in Park Slope, the Department expanded the cases to include two jointly owned restaurants in adjacent neighborhoods. In total, 207 workers were underpaid more than $910,000. Some of the worst violations were for delivery employees working 60 to seventy hours per week and paid a salary of $210.00 to 275.00 per week. At one restaurant, workers were paid as little as $2.75 per hour.
First of all, how fun must that day have been for DOL investigators? I would have gladly paid $100 for the opportunity to tag along and watch the faces of bosses drop as the government demanded that they open their books and interview their workers.
The story has gotten good coverage in the media, certainly helped by the fact that the sweatshop conditions were found in Park Slope. For non-New Yorkers, Park Slope has become one of those neighborhoods that is so easy to make fun of that it’s not worth the trouble. Stereotypes of residents include: progressive to the point of parody; chalk full of artists/writers/people-who-hang-out-in-coffee-shops-at-11 am; and lots of parents obsessed with the latest in child rearing techniques. In a very diverse borough, it’s also noticeably not. It’s worth mentioning that many of the most ardent critics of Park Slope are suspiciously Park Slopeish themselves. For example, I’m noticeably not diverse and before getting a real job spent a decent amount of time fighting over table space for my laptop in coffee shops.
What might get lost in the story, and in my digression into the complicated psychology that can go into Park Slope bashing, is that the problem isn’t Park Slope. The DOL could have selected restaurants on the Upper East Side, Chelsea, Chinatown or Brooklyn Heights and found similar abuses. It’s not a Park Slope problem: the problem is the endemic abuse of dishwashers and delivery workers within the restaurant industry.
Last summer I wrote a piece about income inequality, which included contrasting the lives of a delivery worker with a hedge fund manager. The delivery worker was paid less than $2 an hour, and much to the DOL’s credit, they gave me a call after reading the piece and asked if they could help. I put them in touch with the worker but don’t know what came of it.
Later in the year, for my book, I delivered food in the Manhattan neighborhoods of the West and East Village, Chelsea, Murray Hill, Gramercy, and the Flatiron District. Here’s a section about some of the folks I met and the wages they earned:
One Mexican man delivers for an Indian restaurant, and is paid
twenty-five dollars in cash for a twelve-hour shift, which he works
six days a week. On a good day he makes $50 in tips. Another,
who cooks and delivers for a pizza joint, gets four dollars an hour
in cash and takes home between $30 and $40 in tips. He also
works twelve-hour shifts, six days a week. A nineteen-year-old
Ecuadorian I meet while locking up my bike just started at a Thai
restaurant; at the end of each day he’s given $20 in cash, and earns
an additional $40 or so from tips. When I ask how they’re able to
survive on their income, the answer is always the same: They live
in a small apartment with many others.
It quickly becomes obvious that I don’t need to “investigate”
the prevalence of illegal wages in the food delivery business: that’s
all there is. Over the two months that I deliver food, I speak to perhaps fifty deliverymen about wages, and never meet another person who matches my princely wage of $4.60 an hour
I would suggest that after this first successful operation, the DOL spend a month doing swat-style swoop-ins of restaurants throughout the city. Target twenty per neighborhood. Hit them hard. Move on to the next neighborhood. Hit them hard. And if they need any help, I’d love to serve as a volunteer.