Shelter from the storm

San Francisco strengthens protections for low-wage workers as the economy worsens

A coalition of activists (pictured) and progressive supervisors successfully pushed for stronger protections against wage theft.

Ms. Li has a petite build, but she's physically strong. Hauling around dish bins and boxes of produce weighing 50 pounds was part of her daily routine when she worked shifts lasting 12 hours a day, six days a week, at a San Francisco Chinatown eatery that later made headlines for its poor labor standards.

Li, who did not share her full name for fear of retaliation, says things have improved slightly since the days she worked at King Tin Restaurant, which closed its doors abruptly in 2004 after workers who hadn't seen paychecks in months filed an onslaught of complaints. At the time, her husband was unemployed and she was struggling to support her two teenagers on a single paycheck totaling $950 a month.

It took about five years before the San Francisco Office of Labor Standards Enforcement (OLSE), the City Attorney's Office, and grassroots advocates with the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) finally succeeded in forcing the restaurant's previous owner to grant Li and other workers the back wages they were owed.

Now, she's working 12 hour shifts, five days a week at a different restaurant, but says she still isn't receiving minimum wage or overtime pay. Li aided in the efforts of the Progressive Workers Alliance (PWA) to urge members of the Board of Supervisors to pass the Wage Theft Prevention Ordinance, which aims to strengthen enforcement of local labor standards by empowering OLSE to take a more proactive role against employers who don't pay workers what they're owed.

As a kitchen worker at a high-end restaurant in downtown San Francisco, Li receives a monthly paycheck totaling a little more than $1,400 before taxes. Take-home pay is less, because the employer deducts for meals, a requirement that cannot be dodged even if employees bring their own food.

Li told the Guardian her coworkers are angry about the working conditions, but fear of job loss keeps them silent. "Some of my coworkers work so hard that they cry," she said, speaking through a translator. "One worker was burned badly in the kitchen, and didn't receive worker's compensation or paid sick leave." That person uses their own ointment to treat the burns, she added.

As she described her predicament at the CPA office in Chinatown, student volunteers were creating a banner to be displayed during a press event at City Hall. They arranged folded red and yellow petitions signed by workers in similar situations to spell out PWA, for Progressive Worker's Alliance, to urge city officials to crack down on employers who violate local labor laws.

PWA has been meeting regularly since last year, but the organizations that are part of the advocacy group have been engaged in organizing low-wage workers for much longer. Over the course of more than three years, CPA interviewed hundreds of restaurant workers in Chinatown, and their surveys revealed that about half were not receiving San Francisco's minimum wage, while about 75 percent weren't being paid overtime when they worked more than 40 hours a week. Yet the problem of wage theft in San Francisco extends well beyond Chinatown.

PWA includes representatives from CPA, the Filipino Community Center, Young Workers United, People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), the San Francisco Day Labor Program, and Pride at Work, among others. On August 2, workers and organizers with PWA burst into thunderous applause after the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to pass the Wage Theft Prevention Ordinance on first reading. This represented a major victory.

"With the economic crisis, and the backlash against workers, we felt that as a small grassroots organization, we needed to have a more powerful voice and a specific space for worker issues to be brought to light," CPA lead organizer Shaw San Liu said of the impetus behind PWA.