By Holly Rosenkrantz
WASHINGTON - Any restaurant guide worth its sea salt can tempt readers with descriptions of One if By Land’s foie gras and roasted poussin. To learn that the owner pays the busboys a “living wage” of $9 an hour, and offers paid sick days, diners need a new guide that rates treatment of employees.
Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a New York-based workers’ advocacy group, reviewed and rated 156 dining establishments and companies, from Morton’s The Steakhouse and the Palm Restaurant to Hooters Inc. and McDonald’s Corp., on pay and workplace policies.
“Consumers will now routinely ask if they are eating free-range chicken,” Saru Jayaraman, co-director of the group, said in a phone interview. “Well, we want them to ask if their servers are getting paid sick days, too.”
The group, formed by former employees of the Windows on the World restaurant that was destroyed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, is using the guide to advocate for better wages and working conditions. Churches and worker-rights advocates, some allied with labor unions, are helping with distribution.
The workers’ group is assuming the role once played by labor unions in raising public awareness about workplace abuses, Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California at Berkeley, said.
Shrunken Labor Movement
“We’re seeing a smaller, less powerful labor movement,” Shaiken said in a phone interview. “The historic role of labor was to be the voice of working people, and now there are a host of innovative groups raising concerns for workers.”
Business groups such as the National Restaurant Association, based in Washington, say the effort by the workers is a push for more government regulation that will end up hurting workers.
Restaurants have created jobs, including positions in management and ownership opportunities, Scott De Fife, a spokesman for the Washington-based group, said in an emailed statement.
“This purported dining guide is a transparent attempt to disparage many of America’s restaurants, an industry which provides opportunities for millions of Americans to move up the ladder and succeed,” De Fife said.
The guide’s aim is to focus on trends in the restaurant industry that the group says hurts workers, including low wages, lack of paid sick leave and policies that place minorities, women and immigrants into lower-paying jobs. A New York City guide was issued in 2011, and a national edition was issued in December. The group began a campaign to publicize it Jan. 31.
Restaurants are rated on five measures: paying a higher minimum wage to wait staff and kitchen workers, offering paid time off for illness and offering promotion to employees. A fifth measure reflects endorsement of the group’s activities.
The group said 24 restaurants or chains met the majority of its goals, including nine based in New York City.
In-N-Out Burger, a fast-food chain in the U.S. West; Craft Restaurants, which operates in New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Dallas and at the Foxwoods Resort & Casino in Connecticut; and Oyamel in Washington won high marks for treatment of workers.
The Palm, which has steak houses in 20 U.S. cities and in London, has been owned by the same family since its 1926 opening in New York. Reviewers at the New York Times rate the Palm as a “critics’ pick.”
“Cut into your buttery meat, your buttery potatoes, your creamy greens,” the newspaper says in its review. “These are prepared with real skill and care, and taste it.”
The Restaurant Opportunities Center guide is less kind, giving the Palm “zero” in four categories and a question mark for wages for staff working without tips.
“We don’t have a lot of turnover,” said Richard Hammel, district manager of the Palm on Second Avenue in New York City. “If we didn’t treat our servers well, we wouldn’t have so many second-generation servers.”
Roger Drake, a Morton’s spokesman, referred a call about a rating of zero on four measures and a question mark for promotion opportunities to Landry’s Inc., which is acquiring the restaurant chain operating in 27 U.S. states. A Landry’s spokeswoman Feb. 1 declined to comment on the guide.
Restaurants that aren’t so good to their employees, according to the guidebook: Chuck E. Cheese’s, Houston’s and Darden Restaurant Inc., which operates the Capital Grille, Longhorn Steakhouse, Red Lobster and Olive Garden restaurants.
“I don’t think the ratings we received are accurate in any way,” Rich Jeffers, a Darden spokesman, said in a phone interview. “Opportunities in our restaurants are incredible. The president of Red Lobster started as a line cook in 1973. I think the guide is just not accurate.”
Rosanne Martino, general manager of One if By Land, Two if By Sea, said worker treatment is an important corporate value. She doubts consumers will patronize the restaurant, which is about 2 miles north of the New York Stock Exchange, because of their paid sick days.
“I don’t think they care -- I wish they did, since we do that when we are choosing clothing or sneakers,” she said in a phone interview. “But it’s so common for the restaurant industry to not abide by the law, to not pay for sick days. I’m not sure people are even aware of this when they pick a restaurant.”
The group also filed a lawsuit Jan. 31 against Darden’s Capital Grille in federal court in Chicago on behalf of workers in Chicago, New York and Washington, saying the company discriminates against workers.
According to the complaint, jobs such as dish washer and food preparer are given to people of color, while positions such as servers and bartenders, where customer tips are common, went to white applicants.
Darden’s Jeffers said the group never responded to requests for specifics behind their allegations.
“After repeated requests for specifics from ROC, the first response we received is this lawsuit,” he said. “We continue to believe these allegations are baseless. However, as with any claims of impropriety, we will investigate thoroughly.”
The Darden case is Jones v. Capital Grille Holdings, Inc., 12-CV-00660, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois (Chicago).