New restaurant labor law on NYC's table

View of New York City from the Empire State Building

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Scott Jagow: Immigrant labor is a huge part of the restaurant industry. In New York City, restaurant workers have been getting more vocal about unfair treatment. Noisy protests have become almost commonplace outside some restaurants, but a bill before the city council would give workers another way to put pressure on the restaurant business. Alisa Roth explains.


Alisa Roth: Apolinar Salas sips coffee in a diner near his Bronx apartment. He came to New York from Mexico more than a decade ago. Since then, he's spent a lot of time in restaurants, mostly on the other side of the kitchen door.

In his first job, he says, he routinely washed dishes for nine or more hours a day, but only got paid for seven.

By some counts, almost 15 percent of New York's restaurant workers don't make minimum wage. More than half say they don't get paid overtime.

Advocates for restaurant workers say labor laws are rarely enforced and when theya€™re caught, restaurants get off the hook by settling with workers.

Raj Nayak is an attorney with NYU Law School's Brennan Center for Justice. He's helping bring a bill to the city council that could offer another tool for enforcement.

The bill would put labor law infractions on par with health code violations like rat droppings in the kitchen. And violations would go up on the Internet.

Raj Nayak: What this is saying is this is not just a slap on the wrist. The city's actually watching and the city can take this into account as it investigates your business practice and decides whether or not to grant you a license.

Rajani Adhikary is an organizer with ROC New York, an advocacy group for restaurant workers thata€™s sponsoring the bill. She says more and more workers groups are using city ordinances creatively as a way to stand in for weak labor laws.

Rajani Adhikary: We can't keep servicing the individual folks who come through our doors. There's 165,000 restaurant workers in New York City and for us to really get to a broad systems change for the industry, we'd really have to look at citywide policy.

She says the key to making those policy changes is organizing large numbers of workers who are prepared to stand up for their rights under U.S. law. And increasingly, immigrant workers in many industries are willing to do that — regardless of their legal status.

But some say ROC's just rabble-rousing. Chuck Hunt heads the New York City chapter of the state's Restaurant Association.

Chuck Hunt: Look, restaurants have no reason to want to not comply. In order to stay in business, they have to comply. But there are plenty of laws in place to do that already.

But Apolinar Salas says the laws don't work if they're not enforced. He complained to the labor department and finally settled with his restaurant. He was eventually promoted to cook.

In New York, I'm Alisa Roth for Marketplace.

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