Updated at 3:35 p.m. June 16, 2015

A Sacramento-based lobbying group Tuesday blasted a liberal nonprofit’s report contending that San Diego restaurant workers are routinely “shorted” in pay and tips.

Read the full report (PDF).

The scathing report released Tuesday by the San Diego-based Center on Policy Initiatives surveyed 337 restaurant workers on “wage theft” and other issues.

San Diego State University’s sociology department helped in preparing the report, and KPBS quoted SDSU professor Jill Esbenshade, lead investigator, as saying: “Overwhelming numbers of restaurant workers reported they had been cheated of money they are owed in wages and tips, as well as their break time and personal time.”

But in a statement, the head of the California Restaurant Association told Times of San Diego: “This biased ‘study’ lacks good data and combines potential legal violations with the union funders’ and authors’ blatant political agenda.”

Jot Condie, CRA’s president and CEO, said California recently passed sick-leave laws that have yet to take effect that will provide restaurant workers three sick days per year.

“Other claims have no basis in law,” Condie said. “The California Restaurant Association has zero tolerance for wage theft, discrimination or other illegal practices and provides many resources to ensure our members are in compliance with these regulations.”

He says the report contained “cherry-picked, politically motivated language [that] does a disservice to the robust and respectable restaurant industry that serves as a vital economic driver for San Diego.”

Susan Duerksen, a spokeswoman for the Center on Policy Initiatives, denied that “union funders” were behind the report.

“All the funders of this study are listed on the back of the report,” she said. “The funders are three foundations and San Diego State University.”

In fact, she said, the genesis of the study was that the SDSU Common Experience theme this year is food, “and a grant was available to cover the student research.”

Duerksen also took exception to CRA’s contention about a “blatant political agenda.”

“Our agenda is that people should be paid the wages they have earned, as the law requires,” she said. “We hope this report will help get the word out to many people working in this industry (more than 125,000 in San Diego County) who don’t realize that many of these practices are illegal.”

She added: “If it is blatant and political to shine light on illegal conduct and expect employers to pay employees their hard-earned wages, then so be it.”

The study — “Shorted: Wage Theft, Time Theft and Discrimination in San Diego County Restaurant Jobs” — described nine types of wage theft, including three kinds of tip theft.

Highlights of the report:

  • 77 percent of restaurant employees surveyed have been victims of wage theft by their employers during the past year, and a third said it happens regularly.
  • Nearly a quarter said employers made them falsely record taking unpaid meal breaks. More than 80 percent reported violations of their break rights, either working more than 6 hours without having a meal break or being prevented or discouraged from taking rest breaks.
  • Most workers surveyed get their work schedules less than a week in advance, and 85 percent get less than two weeks’ notice. Other common practices, such as on-call and open-ended scheduling, rob employees of their personal time.
  • 78 percent of workers in the sample have gone to work when they’re sick, injured or in pain, and 65 percent have done so repeatedly. Only 11 percent reported having any paid sick time, and only 17 percent get any health insurance from their jobs.
  • Wage theft most often targeted women, Latinos and “back-of-the-house” staff. Observational data on 40 high-end local restaurants show white males disproportionately represented in “front-of-the-house” jobs.
  • 33 percent of the sample said their earnings were stolen by their employers regularly (always or often).

Of the 195 respondents who answered an optional question naming the restaurant where they worked, 117 distinct names were provided, including 148 different locations.

An additional 15 respondents gave unique workplace ZIP codes. If the unnamed restaurants have the same ratio of unique locations, the survey covered more than 250 distinct workplaces.

“In cities and states previously studied, the restaurant industry has consistently been found to be one of the most abusive,” the report said. “In San Diego County, 125,700 people – nearly one-tenth of all workers – are employed in restaurants, and the industry is growing at almost double the rate of overall employment in the county.”

The group’s San Diego spokesman earlier told KPBS: “The CRA provides many resources to ensure our members do not engage in these activities. Unfortunately, this study combines potential legal violations with the authors’ blatant political agenda.”

Chris Duggan, the CRA’s director of local government affairs, further said: “Any violations of current law are concerning. … The California Restaurant Association will continue to provide our members and the industry with the resources they need to ensure 100 percent compliance with these regulations.”

CPI said the results of the survey warrant further exploration and the “urgent development of policy solutions.”

One form of wage theft is called “off-the-clock” work.

Sixty percent of restaurant employees responding to the survey reported
working unpaid off-the-clock either before or after their recorded work hours, and 15 percent said it was a regular part of their jobs, the study said.

“In interviews, some restaurant workers said their employers directly required them to work during unpaid hours, and many others said they had to work off-the-clock in order to make their paid time manageable,” the report said.

CPI called this a typical comment: “The bosses expected us to be there at 5:30 a.m. but we weren’t allowed to clock in until 6. We had to set up the dining room, start heating up the grills, take out the signs, get the drawer ready.”

At one chain, sit-down restaurant, a server told CPI: “The managers clock you out at the end of your scheduled shift regardless if you are done or not.”

Several workers described how managers manipulated time records in order not to pay earned overtime, another violation of state law.

One respondent told CPI: “When I work more than 40 hours in any given week, the supervisor or manager goes in the system and fixes it so as to not pay me overtime.”

A lead server at a chain restaurant was quoted as saying: “In the 2 1/2 years I have worked there, I have never been paid overtime. Sometimes the managers go back into the computer and move hours around to cover their asses because they could not turn in extra hours to corporate or they would be fired.”

The report concludes with 10 policy recommendations on wage theft, discrimination and scheduling:

  • Agencies that enforce workplace standards need sufficient resources to allow them to carry out proactive enforcement, rather than relying solely on employee complaints.
  • Enforcement agencies at the federal, state and local levels, including City Attorneys and District Attorneys, should collaborate with community-based organizations to identify and pursue wage theft cases.
  • Even after workers win court judgments, they often have difficulty collecting from employers. Wage liens can prevent employers from liquidating business assets to avoid payment of a court order giving workers the wages they are due.
  • Require employers to give a written accounting to all tipped workers of tips received via credit cards and of tips distributed through tip pools.
  • All tipped workers should receive regular information that it is illegal for owners or managers to retain any share of workers’ tips, and how to report such violations.
  • Reject proposals in California for a so-called “Tip Credit.” It would legalize the currently illegal practice of crediting tips to reduce workers’ pay and would exacerbate the wage theft and minimum wage enforcement problems by creating a subminimum wage and a complicated system for wages as well as tips.
  • Require schedules at least two weeks in advance, with “predictability pay” to workers for last-minute changes.
  • Establish a minimum rest period between shifts, with a requirement for time-and-a-half pay for any work performed during the rest period.
  • Establish a compensation requirement for each shift that a worker is required to be on-call.
  • Require that businesses offer additional hours to their current employees before hiring additional part-time employees.
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