“They don’t know the answers. These guys just started here,” the owner of a popular Madison pizza restaurant exclaims as I assist university students in interpreting their interview from English to Spanish to the kitchen staff. We’re working on a project of the Workers’ Rights Center & Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice called the Just Dining Guide. The Guide publicizes the employment standards of Madison restaurants showing starting wages and whether workers have access to health insurance, paid sick days, retirement, and more. Some of the Madison restaurants have unique benefits such as a bonus for bicycle-commuting workers (Colectivo Coffee, Cheba Hut sandwiches).
We arrived at the pizza place well before opening and knocked on the back door where we could see the prep staff working. They let us in and seemed a little bewildered, but when they found we could speak Spanish, one of them took a moment to answer our survey questions. We were having a good conversation until two people who seemed to be the owners came in and did not take kindly to us strangers interviewing workers on their territory. The male owner cut off our conversation immediately with a condescending tone: “This guy, he just started here. He doesn’t know the answers to your questions.”
From my experience at the Workers’ Rights Center, I know what this means. The cook probably doesn’t know if he can take paid sick days or get health insurance or a retirement plan through his employer, because he did not have the time or luxury to inquire about those things when he was hired. He is thankful to have a job and can’t worry about whether it is a good job.
His employer certainly doesn’t mind that the worker didn’t ask questions. All around our society there are employers who get rich from the lack of knowledge and the fear to ask on the part of their employees. I meet workers every day who do not know their right to a minimum wage, to a healthy and safe workplace, to compensation for work-related injuries, to a workplace free of discrimination. And I’m not surprised that they don’t know because I didn’t know either. No one teaches these rights in school, unless in a specialty at the university level, which most low-wage workers never see.
Jesus tells us that those who do evil love the darkness because it hides their evil deeds (Jn. 3:20). “They don’t know the answers” was a red flag to me because it was the employer who wanted to keep it that way. We interviewers represented a threat to the owners of the pizza place because our questions may have led the workers to start asking questions, may have brought to light the employers’ unfair practices.
Our surveying for the Guide is not always this challenging. Many employers like to participate, and they are usually the ones who have solid wages and benefits for their workers. They want those actions to be in the light. The Just Dining Guide shows our community where there are good jobs for workers (among restaurants). The Guide will be updated this December.
Servant Community/Interfaith Worker Justice, Wisconsin
US-2, Class 2014