Shelter from the storm

Pub date August 9, 2011
WriterRebecca Bowe

Ms. Li has a petite build, but she’s physically strong. Hauling around dish bins and boxes of produce weighing 50 pounds was part of her daily routine when she worked shifts lasting 12 hours a day, six days a week, at a San Francisco Chinatown eatery that later made headlines for its poor labor standards.

Li, who did not share her full name for fear of retaliation, says things have improved slightly since the days she worked at King Tin Restaurant, which closed its doors abruptly in 2004 after workers who hadn’t seen paychecks in months filed an onslaught of complaints. At the time, her husband was unemployed and she was struggling to support her two teenagers on a single paycheck totaling $950 a month.

It took about five years before the San Francisco Office of Labor Standards Enforcement (OLSE), the City Attorney’s Office, and grassroots advocates with the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) finally succeeded in forcing the restaurant’s previous owner to grant Li and other workers the back wages they were owed.

Now, she’s working 12 hour shifts, five days a week at a different restaurant, but says she still isn’t receiving minimum wage or overtime pay. Li aided in the efforts of the Progressive Workers Alliance (PWA) to urge members of the Board of Supervisors to pass the Wage Theft Prevention Ordinance, which aims to strengthen enforcement of local labor standards by empowering OLSE to take a more proactive role against employers who don’t pay workers what they’re owed.

As a kitchen worker at a high-end restaurant in downtown San Francisco, Li receives a monthly paycheck totaling a little more than $1,400 before taxes. Take-home pay is less, because the employer deducts for meals, a requirement that cannot be dodged even if employees bring their own food.

Li told the Guardian her coworkers are angry about the working conditions, but fear of job loss keeps them silent. “Some of my coworkers work so hard that they cry,” she said, speaking through a translator. “One worker was burned badly in the kitchen, and didn’t receive worker’s compensation or paid sick leave.” That person uses their own ointment to treat the burns, she added.

As she described her predicament at the CPA office in Chinatown, student volunteers were creating a banner to be displayed during a press event at City Hall. They arranged folded red and yellow petitions signed by workers in similar situations to spell out PWA, for Progressive Worker’s Alliance, to urge city officials to crack down on employers who violate local labor laws.

PWA has been meeting regularly since last year, but the organizations that are part of the advocacy group have been engaged in organizing low-wage workers for much longer. Over the course of more than three years, CPA interviewed hundreds of restaurant workers in Chinatown, and their surveys revealed that about half were not receiving San Francisco’s minimum wage, while about 75 percent weren’t being paid overtime when they worked more than 40 hours a week. Yet the problem of wage theft in San Francisco extends well beyond Chinatown.

PWA includes representatives from CPA, the Filipino Community Center, Young Workers United, People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), the San Francisco Day Labor Program, and Pride at Work, among others. On August 2, workers and organizers with PWA burst into thunderous applause after the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to pass the Wage Theft Prevention Ordinance on first reading. This represented a major victory.

“With the economic crisis, and the backlash against workers, we felt that as a small grassroots organization, we needed to have a more powerful voice and a specific space for worker issues to be brought to light,” CPA lead organizer Shaw San Liu said of the impetus behind PWA.

“You’re talking about workers who are pretty vulnerable — not knowing the laws, not speaking the language. People who need a job and cannot afford to lose it are vulnerable to exploitation,” Liu said.

While labor laws in San Francisco are uniquely strong, with mandatory paid sick leave and local minimum wage established at $9.92 per hour, “When it comes to implementation and enforcement, there’s still a lot left to be desired,” Liu said. As things stand, investigation of employer violations are predicated on worker complaints, and it can take years for a worker to get a hearing if they’re owed back wages.

The Wage Theft Prevention Ordinance doubles the fines for employers who retaliate against workers who file complaints. It allows OLSE investigators to issue immediate citations if they detect a problem in a workplace. When an employer comes under investigation, it requires them to post a notice informing workers that they have a right to cooperate with investigators — and imposes a fine for failing to post the notice. It also establishes a one-year timeline in which cases brought to OSLE’s attention must be resolved.

Under the new law, employers would also be required to provide contact information to their workers, an important change for day laborers who are sometimes taken to job sites where they perform manual labor, only to be dropped off later without payment and no way to get in touch with their temporary bosses.

“You have raised awareness about the crisis of wage theft,” OLSE director Donna Levitt told workers at an Aug. 2 rally outside City Hall. “And we have made it clear that wage theft will not be tolerated in our city.”

The ordinance was spearheaded by Sups. David Campos and Eric Mar, with Sups. Jane Kim, John Avalos, Ross Mirkarimi, and Board President David Chiu signing on as co-sponsors. Members of PWA met with supervisors to win their support, and even succeeded in bringing on board the influential Golden Gate Restaurant Association.

“The fact is that even though we have minimum wage laws in place, those laws are still being violated not only throughout the country, but here in San Francisco,” Campos told the Guardian. “Wage theft is a crime, and we need to make sure that there is adequate enforcement — and that requires a change in the law so that we provide [OLSE] more tools and more power to make sure that the rights of workers are protected.”

Victoria Aquino, 66, spent several years working 16-hour hours without minimum wage or overtime pay as the sole live-in caregiver for six disabled patients at a San Francisco care center. Her duties included feeding patients, bathing them, changing diapers, and cleaning.

“The patients would knock to wake me up and ask me for cigarettes or food in the middle of the night,” she recounted, “and I wasn’t paid for that.” She first complained to OLSE after one of the patients physically attacked her, leaving her black and blue with a permanently injured finger, and later sought the help of the Filipino Community Center to file a claim demanding back wages. It took months, but her employer eventually settled, agreeing to pay $60,000 in back wages and reduce her shifts to eight hours a day.

Aquino said she became involved with the Filipino Community Center because “there are a lot of caregivers still suffering, and more than I suffered — especially those who don’t know the laws. I sympathize for them. It hurts me when I hear some caregivers who are no longer supposed to work. They’re past their 70s, and they’re still working.”