San Francisco – Time to eat in the middle of the workday sounds pretty simple – something most people take for granted. Yet in reality, many, if not most, people who work in restaurants have to put in their entire shift without stopping.
That’s a violation of California labor protection laws.
But the state Chamber of Commerce and the restaurant industry would like to brush that law aside. Now Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has made a proposal that will help them. The governor’s new regulation would allow employers to simply inform workers of their right to a lunch break, rather than actually provide one. Further, it would eliminate a requirement that employers pay an hour’s pay for every break they fail to provide.
Nationally, twelve million people work in restaurants – over 40,000 in San Francisco alone. While some labor in family-owned businesses, many work for chains owned by huge corporations. One if fifteen adults in the US has worked at McDonald’s, for instance, at some time in their lives. That makes the change one that affects a broad range of people.
According to a cook at one famous San Francisco restaurant [afraid he'd be fired if his name was used], “there’s a lot of work, and they don’t let you take a break, even when you’re hungry. From the time I began here, I never had any time to eat. If I tried to take a meal break, they’d come up after five minutes and tell me to go back. You can’t eat in five minutes. They tell you, eat after you leave. I’ve had to work without eating, and it makes me feel bad. But I’ve done it so that I don’t have any problems.”
Not all workers are so accepting. In fact, in the last couple of years, restaurant workers have begun filing cases against their employers for not providing lunch breaks. One big chain, The Cheesecake Factory, has been the target of many such complaints. Patty Senecal, a former Cheesecake Factory worker in San Francisco, says, “In the two years I was there, they never gave us breaks.”
Once people like Senecal began filing complaints, however, the company implemented a strange system to still keep people working for hours without stopping “The Cheesecake Factory had us come in an hour before our scheduled shift,” she recalls. “If you had to be at work at five, you’d come in at four. You’d get in your uniform, and you’d fold napkins for half an hour. Then you would clock out for a break, and then work your 8- hour shift. You were not allowed to eat during these 8 hours, or leave the vicinity. If you did, you’d get reprimanded and written up. Technically, they’d say your break was during your shift, because you’d come in an hour earlier to fold napkins.”
Working for hours without a break can be dangerous to health. “It’s very exhausting to work a full shift without eating,” Senecal explains, “and if you look at the health of people in the restaurant industry, it’s terrible.” Nevertheless, that’s what employers like The Cheesecake Factory wanted. “If you took food into the back during your shift and tried to eat it, you’d get written up. Some servers would try to sneak a cigarette, and they would get written up. Once, after working all day I just sat in this chair out of my customers’ view, because I was so tired. I immediately got lectured and yelled at. For just sitting down.”
Even before the Governor’s proposal to weaken the law, workers had to risk their jobs to enforce it. Marilyn Smith, who helped Cheesecake Factory workers fill out the state complaint forms, found that she faced retaliation from her employer for doing so. She was suspended, and her shifts reassigned. “They were angry, and they’re still angry,” she says. “From the start, the company moved against me. I have to watch my back. I know that every move that I make is a big deal now. I’m paying a price for it.”
Governor Schwarzenegger’s proposal would stop what Cheesecake Factory workers are doing to defend themselves, by making it much harder for anyone to sue for violations of the lunch break regulation and others like it. In just one settlement, the owners of the Chili’s restaurant chain, Brinker International, had to pay a settlement to its workers that totaled $10 million.
At the same time, resources for enforcing existing law are shrinking in the budget morass, and some of the Governor’s proposals to streamline government would have made enforcement even harder. Schwarzenegger proposed last year to abolish the Industrial Welfare Commission, which sets the state regulations for lunch breaks, minimum wage and overtime. California currently has better protections than the Federal government provides, but the new proposals would eliminate the state agency that writes these protections. And under the Bush administration, the Federal protections are likely to be weakened as well. Public outcry recently forced him to abandon that proposal.
While restaurant workers are among those most affected by the meal break rule, other low wage workers in the retail and janitorial industries also have a long record of complaining that they don’t get mandated lunch breaks. Schwarzenegger’s proposals benefit all these industries that employ large numbers of workers dependent on state protections. And those industries have been generous to the Governor. The funds set up for his initiative campaigns, and to pay his high living expenses, have received generous donations. Target and Wal-Mart each gave over $200,000, and The Gap was close behind. And he received over $20,000 from the California Restaurant Association, as well as individual restaurant and hotel owners.
The state Division of Labor Standards Enforcement has held a series of hearings around California, in preparation for adopting the Governor’s recommendation.
The Chamber of Commerce organized large delegations of restaurant owners to testify in support. Without a widespread public outcry, there is little doubt that the change will be implemented.
So the next time you sit down in a restaurant to eat, look into the eyes of the person who put the plate in front of you, or who cleared it away after you ate your fill. When you hear that she or he doesn’t need a meal break, ask yourself these questions: Could I work an entire shift without eating or sitting down? And if my boss cheated me, or violated the law, would I have the courage to protest?
David Bacon is a California photojournalist, who documents labor, migration and globalization. His book, The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the US/Mexico Border, was published last year by University of California Press.