En Español Know Your Rights
Source: Crain's New York Business
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Pity the Delivery Guy

 


 

Tony was
employed as a deliveryman by Adriatic Italian Restaurant & Pizzeria in
midtown for 20 years before he mustered the courage to leave his job—and sue
his former bosses for underpaying him.

 


“I was
tired of these people, who always insulted me,” says Tony, who requested that
his last name not be used because he doesn’t want to jeopardize his new
position.

 


A Latino
immigrant who speaks limited English and is only semiliterate in Spanish, Tony
worked many 70-hour weeks for as little as $10 or $15 per shift plus tips,
according to his sworn statements. The four brothers who own Adriatic
even forced him to pay up front for each meal he delivered.

  

In 2008,
after a new employee at the restaurant told Tony that he has rights under
federal and state labor laws, he contacted Make the Road New York, an advocacy
group for low-wage employees. Tony is now one of four plaintiffs—including one
of his sons and one of his uncles—who are suing Adriatic‘s
owners, the Camaj family. The case will be tried in federal court later this
month.

 


Adriatic‘s owners did not return calls for comment. According to court
documents, the brothers say that they complied with labor law and that after
Tony’s tips were factored into his income, he earned more than the minimum
wage.

  

It is no
secret that restaurant delivery people are among the lowest-paid workers on the
food chain and often face abysmal working conditions rife with abuse, crime and
physical danger.

 


Their
plight made headlines in 2005, when a Chinese deliveryman was robbed and
murdered in Queens by two teenagers, and again in 2008, when the owners of
Saigon Grill were ordered to pay $4.6 million in back pay to the grossly
exploited delivery workers at their two Vietnamese eateries in Manhattan.

 


Now
legislators, a restaurant industry trade group, and city and state government
agencies are all trying to protect this vulnerable group of employees, many of
whom are afraid to complain about problems at work because they are
undocumented immigrants.

 

They were
galvanized in part by a series of crimes in Brooklyn.
Over the past eight months, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes prosecuted
nine cases involving attacks on delivery workers, mostly in Fort Greene
and Clinton Hill.

 

“This is
something the district attorney is concerned about, and it will be an ongoing
discussion with the community,” says a spokesman.

 


City
Councilwoman Letitia James, whose district includes the two hard-hit Brooklyn neigh-borhoods, is working on a safety program
with the city chapter of the New York State Restaurant -Association.

 

“We want to
warn the workers, to give them some instruction on the best routes,” says Ms.
James.

 


SOOTHING
WORKERS, EMPLOYERS

 


Her staff
recently met with Andrew Rigie, director of operations of NYSRA, to discuss a
pilot program slated to kick off in April.

 


Mr. Rigie
hopes that the program—the details of which are still being worked out—will not
only protect existing workers, but also expand their ranks by addressing the
concerns of owners who might like to add delivery services.

 

In Harlem, for example, Fishers of Men, a popular eatery
located on West 125th Street,
is reluctant to offer such a service, even though the owners of its famous
neighbor Sylvia’s say there is a big demand for it. In fact, Sylvia’s plans to
hire its first delivery person later this month.

 


“My main
concern is the safety of my workers,” says Jonathan Hatcher, owner of Fishers
of Men, a three-year-old seafood restaurant.

 

TAKING A
BITE OUT OF CRIME

 


In Brooklyn, some of the restaurants that were affected by
the recent crime spree have taken action on their own.

 


Charlotta
Janssen of Chez Oskar on DeKalb
Avenue
is among the owners whose employees were
attacked.

 

“These guys
get clocked over the head or beaten, and then their phones and bikes are
stolen,” she says.

 


After her
employees were victimized, she added giant baskets and commercial signs to her
bikes “to make them less attractive” to thieves.

 

To
discourage crimes against delivery people, Mr. Hynes is considering increasing
the jail time in cases involving plea deals, says his spokesman.

 


The most
widespread threat to their livelihood, however, is the employers who underpay
them. Make the Road New York is
preparing to file lawsuits this month against two more businesses, a pizzeria
and a Chinese restaurant that are violating wage and hour laws, according to
the organization.

 


“It is very common for a restaurant
to pay "shift pay,’ which is well-below the minimum [hourly] wage,”
says Amy Carroll, legal director of the advocacy group and Tony’s
co-counsel.

 

In fact, in
November, the New York State Department of Labor reported that in a random
sweep of 25 restaurants in Park Slope, Brooklyn,
only two were found not to be violating wage and hour laws. The agency found
that 207 workers of various types were underpaid nearly $1 million in all. Some
of the worst violations involved delivery people, who worked as many as 70
hours per week and were paid a weekly salary of $210 to $275.

 


Clearly,
not all restaurants are underpaying their workers. It took Tony four months to
find a new job, but he finally landed a delivery position with another pizzeria
that treats him “really well,” he reports. Tony is now putting in half the
hours he did at Adriatic and earning about
$200 in base pay a week, plus as much as $400 in tips.

  

“I have
more time to be with my children,” says the father of eight. “My life is
different now.”