Sunday, September 11, 2011

The People 9/11 Forgot

“Wake up! Wake up! Wake the fuck up!”
“What are you doing here? Go away!”
“Somebody just bombed the World Trade Center!”
“Oh my fucking god! Are you kidding me? My sister. Oh my sister!”
            I had just come back from New York City the night before. I had spent a week with my sister going to Barneys Warehouse Sale, wasting too much money on coffee at Café Gitane and raiding for kitchen supplies at Broadway Panhandler. I thought it was a good reward after 2 months of grueling research in Europe. I went back to California refreshed and rejuvenated.
            All this seemed completely trivial the next day. I staring dialing, 212… Damn. No response. 212… 212… 212… Call mom. Maybe my sister called mom. No news. Worry worry. What about her husband? Doesn’t he work in Tribeca or was it Soho? Can’t remember. Dial again. Nothing. My friend had some secret phone pass number that should work. Dial…wait…dial. Oh thank God. You’re all right. Where’s Tom? He’s all right. What about everyone else? Tom’s family? I’m calling Mom and telling her you’re OK. Don’t move from your apartment. Keep me informed….
               As we all witnessed in what can only be our generation’s version of the Kennedy assassination, 9/11 has been burnt into our minds. The images, the stories and the sorrow have occupied our national narrative now for a decade. Persons we never heard of became objects of scorn and hate. Places we never been to became headline news. Words we never knew became commonplace. In a twisted version of the Kevin Bacon Game, we all know someone that has been affected by 9/11.
            And after Iran, Osama bin Laden, Afghanistan, the Taliban, jihad, and Al Qaeda, many of us are still trying to grasp the meaning or senlessness of 9/11. The statistics bear out the damage, but not the suffering. 2,819 dead. 343 firefighters and paramedics killed. 19,858 body parts found. 3,051 children lost a parent. 146,100 jobs lost. 40.2 billion dollars in insurance claims. And on and on…
            And yet in all the numbers there were still those that were forgotten. Seventy-three workers at Windows on the World on the 106th and 107th floors of Tower One in the World Trade Center never got the recognition. All low-wage immigrant service workers, they slipped between the cracks of all the statistics. Many of them were illegally employed. Most had few relatives in the New York vicinity. All the workers had family members from the 4 corners of the earth: Colombia, Mexico, China, Ecuador, Brazil, etc. While all families were eligible for the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund, many of them, due to language, diplomatic or economic circumstances never did receive their share of the victim funds. Furthermore, many relatives couldn’t even penetrate the legal maze of paperwork that compensation involved.
            For those that survived the attacks, their own nightmare was beginning. Left with no job, no health care, no benefits, they were left on their own to navigate their lives post-9/11. Unlike high profile businesses such as the investment bank Cantor Fitzgerald or city employees, such as the New York Fire Department or the New York Police Department, there was no safety net for those working at Windows on the World.
            In a dirty little secret that everyone in the restaurant industry knows, restaurant workers, and not just those working at the Windows on the World, live with very few benefits, almost no health coverage, little financial stability[1] and few workplace rights (if any, and many times, those rights are routinely ignored or violated).  Part of the problem lies in the unskilled and low-skilled nature of restaurant work. Waiters, dishwashers, line and prep cooks, clean-up crew, busboys, hosts, and bartenders are all the backbone of the restaurant business, and they are paid marginally compared to the physical and stress demanded. And unlike construction workers or other unskilled labor, many of these laborers are non-union,[2] thus lack any power to collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions.
            The other part of the problem lies with restaurant owners.[3]. Food is only about 38-42% of the total budget of a restaurant. The rest of the money goes to staff and overhead. In the end, restaurants keep about $.04 of every dollar spent at a restaurant. This being said, it is no surprise that 75% of restaurants go out of business after 4 years. Considering that labor enforcement is weak and profit margins are low, there is every single incentive to cheat the system by underpaying workers.
            And then there is the documentation problem. Simply put, many restaurant workers are illegal.[4] And no, it’s not just taco joints, greasy spoons and Chinese restaurants. Some restaurants are fooled by false documentation. Others look the other way in terms of false documentation. And then there are those who purposely hire illegal workers. In any case, illegal workers are caught in a legal catch-22 when in comes to unpaid wages or worker abuse. Complain and they get fired or possibly reported. Don’t complain and they get treated like ****.
            So what is one to do? Don’t eat at restaurants? Well, I for one could never do that – I just like food too damn much.  One solution is to check on the web which restaurants have the best employment records or policies.[5] Another solution is to support the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York. Founded by surviving staff of Windows on the World Restaurant, the organization advocates on behalf of restaurant workers, creates job training and development opportunities for restaurant, and lobbies for better working conditions for all restaurant workers.[6] Third, push your Congressperson for immigration reform. And what you can do immediately? Pay a good tip for service. Restaurant workers work grueling hours under pretty stressful conditions so you can have a good meal. They deserve to be remembered every day – not just on 9/11.

Windows on the World’s Classic Manhattan (adapted from Dale DeGroff)
            We all could use one today.

½ oz. sweet vermouth
2 ½ oz. rye
lemon twist for garnish

In a cocktail shaker, combine 4 ice cubes, sweet vermouth and rye and shake until cold. Strain into a martini glass and garnish with lemon twist.

[1] A 2005 study by the Restaurant Opportunities Center in NYC reported that 60% of restaurant workers earn wages at the poverty level. Since the recession of 2008, that number has surely increased.
[2] This is not to suggest there are not unions for the service industry, but only 1% of the NYC restaurant workforce is unionized. Amazingly, 43 of the 73 workers that died at Windows on the World were members of the hotel and service industry union, UNITE HERE. The restaurant industry has special challenges to labor organizers due to the fragmented nature of the restaurant industry. Unlike hotels, casinos and the like, 93% of restaurants employ less than 50 workers, according to the National Restaurant Association (think about the local taco joint or the Thai place around the corner – NOT Daniel). Trying to build a coalition around small business requires an immense amount of resources that unions don’t simply have (even thought the mafia seems to do it well…).
[3] Once again, this is not to suggest that all restaurants are guilty of this. Many of NYC’s best restaurants hire legally and pay wages according to law. Some of them even give their workers health insurance and benefits, most notably at Tom Colicchio’s Craft and Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack (Bouley also gives health benefits, but no paid sick days or vacation. Boo!). But several high profile restaurants, including Del Posto, Morimoto, Alto as well as chefs/restaurateurs Mario Batali and Bobby Flay have been accused of stiffing their working stiffs in the kitchen (Wall Street Journal, August 31, 2011. For the article, click here.) Many restaurateurs claim that there is confusion in the law regarding the distribution of wages, especially to those that regularly receive tips, such as bartenders and wait-staff. (According to US wage law, those workers who receive tips on the job are paid less than the minimum wage.) Dishwashers and other staff just get screwed at minimum wage (or less).

[5] The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York City has released a restaurant guide for restaurants that adhere to fair labor practices (click here for the list).
[6] If you are outside New York, Restaurant Opportunities Center United works on a national basis for restaurant workers rights, with branches in Michigan and Chicago.
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