May 5, 2010

The life of the restaurant delivery worker


Some time after I wrote about protesting restaurant delivery workers in the West Village for the March issue of WestView, I spoke with David Colodny, senior staff attorney for the Urban Justice Center (UJC), a local non-profit legal and advocacy organization for low-income New York City residents. The center works with street vendors, domestic violence victims, sex workers and other groups that don’t get a lot of legal representation.

UJC also works with immigrant Chinese restaurant workers. Colodny filed a February 2008 U.S. District Court lawsuit on behalf of several deliverymen against their employer, Kawa Sushi, alleging minimum wage and overtime labor law violation and retaliation for organizing.

The UJC lawyer says 10- to 12-hour shifts are typical for restaurant delivery workers. Their work day begins in the morning, before the restaurant opens. They might deliver menus throughout the neighborhood, clean the sidewalk, or cut cardboard for delivery bags. In the afternoon, their “side work” continues with chores such as filling plastic sauce containers, chopping vegetables, and more cleaning.

“They’re treated as someone who’s going to make a lot of money earning tips, but at the end of the day, when you figure it out, these are not lucrative jobs by any stretch of the imagination,” says Colodny. “They can also be very physically demanding; working in really cold or hot weather lack of breaks, no sick leaves and difficult working conditions.” The minimum wage for tip-earning workers is $4.60 per hour, compared to the non-tip earning minimum in New York State of $7.25 per hour. The workers I spoke to were not even getting that; they were earning between $1.90 and $3 an hour and working over 70 hours per week.

Unspoken in this debate is the immigration status of the workers who have tried to unionize, and the possibility that their status makes them more vulnerable to exploitation by restaurant owners. “From a legal standpoint, everyone who works is entitled to be paid,” says Colodny, who adds, “The common factor in these cases is employers preying upon immigrants who don’t speak English, often are not aware of their rights, and are not in a position to assert them. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of this kind of abuse that goes on.”

How many of us think about these things when we open our door to a member of the city's vast network of deliverymen, the runners and cyclists who travel our streets carrying white plastic bags and insulated plastic pizza box holders? If America runs on Dunkin', New York runs on food delivery. So next time you go to your door in happy anticipation of your pizza/Thai/Chinese/Japanese food, try to imagine the kind of day the man holding the bag has had.