Written by Aaron Schneider
To demand living wages and unionization rights, striking workers in Chicago and New York walked out of fast food recently. In other major industrial tourism locations like New Orleans, the sad truth is that workers at every level of food service, from fast food to fine dining, are struggling to put food on their own tables. A tourism Mecca, like New Orleans ought to be different, as restaurants cash in on the local reputation for flavor, from fast food, like Popeye’s, to fine dining restaurants bearing the names of famous New Orleans chefs – Emerile’s, Besh Steakhouse, and K-Paul’s. Restaurants drive local tourism, yet abuse and underpayment is what too many workers receive.
New Orleans perhaps makes the case better for unionization than Chicago and New York. An emblematic case is Yousef Wafiq “J’obert” Salem Aladwan, owner of Tony Moran’s in the French Quarter. He wrote paychecks that bounced, paid workers in cash, failed to pay overtime, made employees work off the clock, and stole their tips. He assigned workers of color to the upstairs dining area where there were fewer customers and therefore fewer tips. When workers complained, he threatened to have them placed on a blacklist. Finally, eleven workers had the courage to stand up to him. They filed suit, and he has been forced to pay them $260,000.
The sad fact is that such conditions are all too common. In a survey of restaurant workers reported in the Times Picayune (2/21/2010) and in which I participated while I was a professor at Tulane University, 72 percent of restaurant workers have worked while sick as few had health insurance to get necessary medication and fewer still had paid sick days. With average wages of $16,870, 83 percent of workers earning less than $10 per hour, and 28 percent of workers below the federal poverty line, restaurant workers in New Orleans can’t afford to miss a day of work.
Restaurant workers like the ones at Tony Moran’s stay in the industry because they love their customers and want to give every diner a meal to remember. As they serve our food, they are co-participants in our most important life events – birthdays, marriage proposals, family reunions. Yet, all too often they are underpaid, have to work while sick, and face discrimination and harassment in the workplace. This hurts workers, customers, and the very brand at the heart of New Orleans tourism. Restaurant owners who cheat the city out of taxes and cheat workers out of their wages also cheat customers out of their dining experience. Dining memories require better public policy. That starts with a tipped minimum wage of higher than $2.13, like in California, and paid sick days, like in New York.
This is more than feasible. Both California and New York have a lucrative restaurant sector. So does New Orleans; accommodation and food services generate around $3 billion for the city’s economy and provide close to 50 thousand jobs. Every one of those jobs should be a good one. To make every workplace to a safe, healthy, profitable producer of memorable dining experiences, restaurant workers have formed an organization, the Restaurant Opportunities Center. They offer to work with employers to create high road establishments that do right by the city, do right by their customers, and do right by their workers. But, if employers do wrong, the workers at Tony Moran’s have sent a message: workers will stand up, and they will win.
Professor, University of Denver
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