A restaurant’s record of labor law compliance
would be considered as a condition of renewing its city operating permit as a
food service establishment, under a pending New York City Council bill backed
by labor advocacy groups.
The bill (Intro. No. 569-A), known as the Responsible Restaurant Act, drew support
at a March 31 council Health Committee hearing from groups including the Restaurant
Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY), the National Employment Law Project,
and Local 1500 of the United Food and Commercial Workers.
The New York Immigration Coalition, the New York Committee for Occupational Safety
and Health, Make
the Road New York, and the Community Development Project of the
Testifying against the bill were representatives of the city Health Department
and the National Restaurant Association.
The bill would require the city health commissioner, as part of the permit review
process, to consider whether an establishment meets "standards of good character
and fitness," including compliance with city, state, and federal laws on
the minimum wage, working hours, overtime, and employment discrimination.
Permit Denials, Suspensions.
Based on submissions to be required from applicants and on comments submitted
by the public, the commissioner could hold hearings, decide to deny or suspend
a permit, or take other discretionary action. Credible evidence of labor law
violations within the last five years would automatically trigger a hearing.
An applicant’s willful failure to disclose required information would be punished
by a fine of up to $2,000 and a possible permit bar of up to two years.
The bill’s declaration of legislative findings and intent noted that the city
Health Code requires food service establishments to be operated in compliance
with federal, state, and city laws, rules, and regulations.
"When food service establishments flout these laws, they are unfit to conduct
this important business, the integrity of which directly impacts the health and
welfare of millions of New Yorkers annually," the bill said.
Testifying in favor of the bill, NELP Attorney Raj Nayak cited research pointing
to "pervasive employment law violations" in the city’s restaurant industry,
which employs more than 165,000 people. But only the relatively few restaurants
that have been found in violation of labor laws would be subject to direct
review, he said, and the bill is not intended to shut down restaurants.
Signal to Industry.
"Instead the RRA will send a strong signal to the industry that compliance
with basic employment laws is not optional, and will encourage more restaurants
to take them more seriously," Nayak said. "In this way, the RRA will
help level the playing field for responsible restaurant owners who are placed
at an unfair competitive disadvantage for playing by the rules."
He noted that the department already considers whether restaurant permit
applicants are in compliance with other laws, such as whether they owe any
child support payments.
"The city has an important interest in ensuring the integrity of the permitting
process by denying permits to applicants who harm their workers or undermine
responsible restaurant owners by routinely violating employment laws,"
The law project advised the council in drafting the bill.
Deputy City Health Commissioner Jessica Leighton, in testimony opposing the
bill, argued that it would force the department to "redirect critical
resources away from the protection of food safety and education of food service
Violation of labor laws, she said, "should be addressed by appropriate agencies
with expertise and jurisdiction in labor issues."
Leighton challenged suggested links between labor law compliance and food safety,
saying that the
had relied on a flawed methodology in reaching its conclusion that restaurants
with labor law violations are also likely to have been charged with health code
She further argued that "the enormous administrative requirements will likely
not be offset by improvements in labor practices or public health" and suggested
that provisions allowing for public submissions on the fitness of an applicant
could lead to "serious abuses."
Outlook for Passage.
The outlook for the bill’s passage remains uncertain. "We’re hoping for a second
hearing, which would lead to passage," ROC-NY Co-Director Rekha Eanni told
BNA April 4.
"We need to go back and talk to the participants in the hearing who raised
issues and try to resolve those issues," said Patrick Purcell, director of
special projects for Local 1500, in an interview.
He suggested, however, that "ultimately the city administration does not have
enough respect for workers’ rights" to go along with the proposal.
"This comes down to the will of the council to pass it over the objections
of the city administration," Purcell told BNA. "If a restaurant has
made a big back pay award, that should trigger some city scrutiny of its
overall business practices."