FAIR FOOD We've all worked in a restaurant, haven't we? I know I have — many — and gosh if they aren't tricky little employment situations. Overtime, what? Breaks, really? And health care — well who the hell gets health care at a restaurant?
But this being San Francisco, restaurant workers are entitled to all these things courtesy of our hard-won labor laws. Which of course doesn't mean that workers get them all the time, but that they should. And the bars and eateries that provide these benies — along with job safety, respect, and other luxuries — should be the ones that get the business of the conscientious diner.
Until recently the identity of these decent restaurants was only obtainable by sneaking back into the kitchen to chat. But the advocacy group Young Workers United (www.youngworkersunited.org ) is changing that. Its guide to SF restaurants, Dining With Justice, is now in its second year of publication, teaching those who want to know where they can get a nice meal served by someone who is happy and secure in their job.
"It's kind of a counter to Zagat and Yelp," YWU organizer Edwin Escobar tells me. Escobar just got done talking about his group's campaign to a room full of City College of San Francisco students at the school's "Turn the Tables" teach-in last week. The event was sponsored by CCSF's labor and community studies program and featured presentations from community groups and SF's Office of Labor Standards Enforcement.
To research the guide, YWU members interviewed 250 employees at 32 restaurants. The 58-question survey ranked businesses in five fields: compliance with wage and working hours laws, job mobility, job satisfaction, health and safety, and job security. Only nine businesses received stars in three or more the categories; none received five out of five.
"People think, oh, it's San Francisco, all the workers get treated well. But that's not the case. Restaurants and retail businesses get away with murder," Escobar says. His organization provides labor law education and advocacy for low-wage workers around the city in an attempt to stem workplace violations.
Recently, YWU shed some light on some of the troubles faced by workers in a struggle with one of the city's most beloved type of snack stop: the taqueria. The group helped the Latino staff of the Taqueria Azteca chain (which has locations in the Castro and Noe Valley) recoup more than $2 million in back pay from owners who had cheated them of overtime compensation and even minimal control over their schedules. Escobar says one mother involved in the legal proceedings had been given a choice by management: return to work one week after giving birth or lose her job.
"The workers who get cheated the most in San Francisco are Asian immigrants," says Shaw San Liu, another speaker at "Turn the Tables." Liu is a lead organizer with the Chinese Progressive Association (www.cpasf.org ), which since 1970 has worked to empower the Chinatown community to deal head on with social inequities. Earlier this year, the association released a report on the state of employment in Chinatown restaurants based on one-on-one interviews with 435 workers. The results were disheartening: 50 percent had worked under-minimum wage jobs; 80 percent had been cheated out of overtime; 64 percent had received no on-the-job training; a majority had been injured on the job; and more than half were paying all medical costs out of pocket.
That's just not cool in a town that nominally protects workers against all these things by law. Liu says CPA would like to publish a guide similar to Dining With Justice to reward responsible restaurants but has run into cultural stumbling blocks. Law-abiding businesses didn't want to be singled out as such because, owners said, it would make their neighbors look bad. "Everyone knows minimum wage in Chinatown is $1,000 a month," says Liu. "They didn't want to be known as the goody two-shoes."
There are clear challenges to improving the lot of the person serving you your brunch, burritos, and dim sum. But everyone has a part to play in making it happen. "At this point, we're just asking consumers to be aware," Liu says.
Efforts like Dining With Justice are a real step in the right direction. YWU plans to expand its scope next year into other city neighborhoods. "Surely there are more than just nine restaurants treating their workers right in this city. We want to know about them," YWU organizer Tiffany Crain tells the room of students assembled before her. Crain added that if anyone in attendance works for a good employer, they should call her — just as they should call her if they are getting cheated out of wages or a healthy working environment.
"You want to make money?" Liu asked SF restaurant owners. "You're going to make money if people think you're a good employer." In San Francisco, diners like to think they're eating sustainably: organic, local, and fair to workers. Also, a chef who is happy in his or her job makes for a better dining experience.
Here are restaurants that scored four stars in Dining With Justice.
1331 Ninth Ave.; (415) 566-3117, www.arizmendibakery.com 
384 Hayes; (415) 626-1211
2199 Mission; (415) 875-9258, www.thecornersf.com 
590 Valencia; (415) 863-8272 and 581 Hayes; (415) 864-7654, www.frjtzfries.com 
2901 Mission; (415) 282-1500, www.missionpie.com 
4072 18th St.; (415) 252-9325, www.poesiasf.com 
941 Cole; (415) 564-5332, www.zaziesf.com