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Workers Choke On Schwarzenegger's Lunch Break Deal

by David Bacon

Schwarzenegger's Budget Axe Chops Services For Poor And Needy

(PNS) -- Getting some time to eat in the middle of the workday sounds simple. In reality, many restaurant workers put in their entire shifts 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 those laws aside. Now Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed changes to state regulations that would help them. The proposal 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, 12 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 in 15 adults in the United States has worked at McDonalds at some time in his or her life.

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."

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 that "in the two years I was there, they never gave us breaks."

Once people like Senecal began filing complaints, however, the company found a way to keep people working for hours without stopping. "The Cheesecake Factory had us come in an hour before our scheduled shift," Senecal 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 eight 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. "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...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."

Marilyn Smith, who helped Cheesecake Factory workers fill out the state complaint forms, says 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."

Deby Zurzolo, general counsel for the Cheesecake Factory, says that the company "takes its obligations as an employer seriously and believes it has been in compliance with California law concerning meal and rest breaks."

Gov. Schwarzenegger's proposal would make it much more difficult for workers to sue for violations of the lunch-break regulation and others like it. In just one legal settlement, the owners of the Chili's restaurant chain Brinker International had to pay $10 million to its workers.

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 make 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 what 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.

Like restaurant workers, 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. Funds set up for his initiative campaigns have received hefty donations. Target and Wal-Mart each gave over $200,000, and The Gap was close behind. Schwarzenegger 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, however, there is little doubt that the change will be implemented.

So the next time you sit down in a restaurant to eat, ask yourself if you could work an entire shift without eating or sitting down. And, if your boss cheated you or violated the law, would you have the courage to protest?

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Albion Monitor March 1, 2005 (

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