Lawsuit against popular Bay Area restaurant sheds light on restaurant labor practices
on October 6, 2016
A recent lawsuit filed by employees of the Burma Superstar restaurant group has focused new attention on how workers are treated behind the scenes at Bay Area restaurants.
Burma Superstar, which operates in Oakland and San Francisco, is hardly the only well-known Bay Area restaurant that has faced allegations of wage theft and other labor abuses. According to the new legal complaint, employers at the Burma Superstar restaurants denied the plaintiffs “the right to the minimum wage, overtime pay, meal periods and rest periods.” The plaintiffs seek class action status and demand a trial by jury.
Representatives from Burma Superstar have not commented on the lawsuit nor has a hearing date been set.
Although the headlines have focused mostly on restaurants that treat workers badly, a 2016 study by the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, a worker advocacy group, looked at another side of the story: The group found evidence that restaurant employers which do pay workers a living wage report “economic benefits in terms of savings on training periods and enhanced productivity.”
A large share of kitchen workers are immigrants and non-English speakers, which makes them particularly vulnerable. Data from the California Department of Industrial Relations show that 16.6 percent of the labor abuse cases filed with the agency this year were against eating and drinking places, the single largest category besides a catch-all grouping of many types of employers. Restaurants and bars accounted for 9.5 percent of jobs in California as of 2014.
Many restaurant positions require less than a high school education, which means that they often act as an entryway into the workforce for immigrants or those without higher education.
Flor Chrisostomo, who’s been working in the restaurant industry for the last seven years, says she’s witnessed labor violations in many of the upscale restaurants where she has worked. She is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit alleging wage theft at Calavera, a Mexican restaurant in Oakland, now the subject of a boycott called by the Bay Area Restaurant Workers Movement, an organization started to support restaurant workers’ rights.
In their complaint, the plaintiffs allege “failure to pay all minimum and overtime wages owed,” “failure to keep accurate time records,” “failure to provide rest or meal periods,” and “failure to reimburse expenses incurred.”
Calavera’s owners did not return a phone call for comment.
During an interview in Spanish, Chrisostomo said restaurant workers, especially those working in back of the house, deal with very difficult conditions. She says that owners commit violations of labor rights against the workers. “Everybody is talking about food justice,” Chrisostomo says, “when the people don’t respect … the workers, what is the justice there?”
Shonda Roberts, a former employee of Oakland’s Coffee Roma, filed a complaint against the restaurant for wage theft and retaliation—which she alleges culminated in the loss of her job. She has joined with two other employees, who allege similar violations, along with sexual harassment, and together they’ve publicly protested and spoken out against Coffee Roma.
In response to the allegations, the owner declined to comment and referred questions to Coffee Roma’s manager, Sasah, who declined to provide his full name. He said that the workers involved had only been working at Coffee Roma for three to four weeks, were not “official employees” and were fired for other issues.
Despite the prevalence of wage theft complaints, many restaurants treat their workers well and follow the minimum wage and overtime laws. Romney Steele cofounded and runs The Cook and Her Farmer, a restaurant in Swann’s Market in Oakland. She says that while wage theft is common, many restaurants in the East Bay “provide really, really great environments.” She said workers at her restaurant receive all legal rights along with perks like clogs for use in the kitchen, annual trips, and occasional nights out at other restaurants. “The better care we take of them,” she says, “the better work they’re going to do for us.”
Steele says that although workers have a legal right to breaks, this system often counters how things have historically been run in the restaurant industry. “It’s very, very typical in a restaurant: you go in, and you start at 3 or 4 [p.m] and you end your day at midnight and you never once sat down,” she says.
Steele said labor laws geared for large corporate workplaces don’t necessarily work for restaurants. “A lot of us,” she says, “are having to figure out ways to abide by the law and also continue to do the work that we’ve been doing.”
Evelyn Rangel-Medina, the Bay Area director for Restaurant Opportunities Center United, known as ROC, said a mounting number of restaurant workers have approached her organization during the past year. Many are claiming violations of minimum wage laws.
“Now we know it’s not enough to increase the minimum wage,” she said. “There has to be enforcement and penalties for employers who choose to not follow the minimum wage.”
In addition to wage violations, Rangel-Medina said, “industrywide racial dynamics … systematically prevent workers of color from advancing into higher paid positions.”
White workers are funneled to front of house positions like waiters and bartenders, she said, while people of color work tend to wind up in the kitchen. A lot of it, Rangel-Medina says, is that workers of color “are not seen as the ‘right’ people to be serving the front of house.”
A recent comprehensive study done by ROC, based on surveys and interviews of workers in the Bay Area industry, found that workers of color experience a $6.12 wage disparity compared with white workers. The group said no other region it studied had a wider “race pay gap.”
ROC is now working with the city of Oakland to reduce segregation in restaurants. “This industry is conducive to exploitative practices,” Rangel-Medina says. “Historically vulnerable populations have been stuck in these working conditions.”
Oakland North welcomes comments from our readers, but we ask users to keep all discussion civil and on-topic. Comments post automatically without review from our staff, but we reserve the right to delete material that is libelous, a personal attack, or spam. We request that commenters consistently use the same login name. Comments from the same user posted under multiple aliases may be deleted. Oakland North assumes no liability for comments posted to the site and no endorsement is implied; commenters are solely responsible for their own content.
Oakland North is an online news service produced by students at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and covering Oakland, California. Our goals are to improve local coverage, innovate with digital media, and listen to you–about the issues that concern you and the reporting you’d like to see in your community. Please send news tips to: email@example.com.