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Feb. 10 2010 - 3:52 pm | 90 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

The schizophrenic minds of Chicago’s restauranteurs

The majority of Chicago restauranteurs interviewed for a recent report on the industry say they wanted to offer good pay and benefits to employees, but they don’t actually do it.

“Behind the Kitchen Door,” published by the Chicago Restaurant Industry Coalition, is an in-depth look at the labor practices of an industry known for wage and hour abuses. The coalition interviewed 31 owners and managers for the report and found that 17 of them “reported a policy of keeping wages low and overtime pay to a minimum,” even while paying lip service to better treatment of their workers. 

“While there are surely some ‘bad’ employers who operate only for their own profit, at the expense of their workers, what appears to be more common is that employers espouse supportive workplace policies in theory, but do not implement them in practice,” says the report. “This disconnect can be largely attributed to lack of good management, absence of industry incentives rewarding good employment practices in the industry, and ineffective employment law enforcement mechanisms.”

In other words: no carrots and no sticks. Guess it’s not schizophrenia after all.

The quotes really say it all. Said one manager of a family-style restaurant who has 10 years in the business:  

There are so many people that are actually doing (violating the law) that there is not really much (you can do). I mean, you can say that we can make it illegal blah blah blah, but it’s really hard to enforce. Most people won’t even say that they are getting paid below minimum wage.

Or my favorite, also from a manager of 10 years:

What is our overtime policy? Uh, there really isn’t one. There is no extra pay for overtime.

Uh, that’s illegal. But I digress.

Owners and managers pointed to barriers they face to paying their workers better wages. The recession has hurt their industry, they said, although almost all of them said their particular establishment was muddling through. They also said they’ve been hurt by the need cater to customers’ new food sustainability fetish. Benefits are completely out of the question; it’s too expensive to provide health care. The irony is the same employers cited high turnover as an obstacle to profitability.

The report notes that “when asked it if was possible to pay a living wage and still make a profit, many employers felt it was difficult, but not impossible. Commitment to doing so and an acknowledgement that it was a non-negotiable overhead determined whether or not better wages would be paid.”

For more on the restaurant industry report, check out coverage from Adam Doster at Progress Illinois and Kari Lydersen at Working in These Times.


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    I'm a freelance journalist based in Chicago. I've written for a lot of places no one's ever heard of, a few places they have, and I share the philosophy of Dr. Samuel Johnson, who said, "No man but a a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." The sentiment jives nicely with the beat I've assigned myself: organized labor and workers rights in the City of Big Shoulders (and other places, too, as the mood strikes). We're dealing in news here, people. If you want my opinion, buy me a drink.

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