Today, the feisty advocates at the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), an organization founded in honor of the 73 employees of the Windows on the World restaurant who died on Sept. 11th, will be paying surprise visits to restaurants across the country that are members of the National Restaurant Association, including Capital Grille, Olive Garden, and Red Lobster. ROC and its allies will be calling on these employers to increase the minimum wage and allow workers to escape poverty.
July 24th, 2013 marks the fourth year that has passed without an increase in the federal minimum wage -- $7.25 per hour, or roughly $15,000 per year for a full-time worker. It's been 20 years since the minimum "tipped" wage has been increased ($2.13), thanks to opposition from the restaurant industry. While wages are stagnating health care costs and other expenses are on the rise.
Across the country, activists have fought to raise wages and improve working conditions, especially in the low-wage restaurant industry. Many fought to pass local ordinances that allow a few paid sick days for workers, a concept that is highly popular with voters.
But the restaurant industry has been fighting back with a coordinated, national campaign to pass laws in fourteen states that preempt local ordinances on worker wages and sick day benefits and the "other NRA," the National Restaurant Association, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) are in the driver's seat.
Forty Percent of All Workers Have No Paid Sick Leave
Under current federal law only employees working 40 hours or more at businesses with at least 50 workers are allowed to take time off with pay when they are sick. About forty percent of U.S. workers cannot take a day off for themselves or their sick kids without risking being fired. Twenty-three percent of American workers have lost their jobs or have been threatened with job loss for taking time to care for themselves or a loved one, according to a new issue brief "Sick and Fired" by Family Values @ Work.
To address the problem, local activists passed paid sick day measures in Connecticut, and the cities of San Francisco, Washington DC, and Seattle. Just a few weeks ago, New York's City Council overrode a veto by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to pass a paid sick days law that goes into effect in 2014.
Paid sick day bills are being proposed in Maryland, Washington, Vermont, Oregon, and Massachusetts along with many municipalities. Unhappy at having to battle the issue state to state, city to city, the other NRA has decided to play dirty and use its lobbying might in coordination with ALEC legislators to pass state bills that preempt local ordinances. This is a tactic the group has used before to override local efforts to provide labeling laws for food safety and nutritional reasons.
The preemption concept was launched in August 2011 at an ALEC meeting in New Orleans. At that meeting, a Wisconsin bill that had passed earlier that year was shared with other state's legislators as a model for state override.
The Wisconsin bill was passed just a few months earlier at the urging of ALEC alum Governor Scott Walker and after a heavy lobbying effort by the state affiliate of the National Restaurant Association. That bill overturned a paid sick days referendum passed in Milwaukee in 2008 with over 70 percent of the popular vote. So much for "local control."
"Paid Family Medical Leave" was the only agenda item for the ALEC Labor and Business Regulation subcommittee in August 2011. A state National Restaurant Association executive was part of the panel, and legislators attending the meeting were handed a target list and map of state and local paid sick leave policies prepared by the NRA.
Bills Block Cities and Counties from Providing Paid Sick Day Protections
The NRA/ALEC effort to preempt local paid sick day ordinance is spreading. Their fingerprints have been found on bills across the nation. Some bills override not only paid sick days, but living wage ordinances, wage-theft ordinances and more.
Alabama: the Alabama Restaurant Association is pushing a preemption bill to stop local paid sick days ordinances.
Connecticut: the Connecticut Restaurant Association lobbied vigorously against a paid sick days law passed in 2011.
Florida: the recently passed preemption bill was written with the help of Darden, the parent company for Olive Garden and Red Lobster.
Indiana: the Indiana Restaurant and Lodging Association pushed to pass a state preemption bill.
Kansas: the Kansas Restaurant & Hospitality Association (KRHA) wrote a letter to the governor asking him to support a state preemption bill.
Louisiana: the Louisiana Restaurant Association (LRA) gave $2,750 to the campaign of a preemption bill sponsor. The LRA is a sponsor of ALEC and the LRA CEO spoke at the ALEC meeting in 2011 where a preemption model bill was distributed.
North Carolina: The legislature is currently considering a bill to preempt cities and counties from requiring contractors provide their workers paid sick days or pay a minimum wage.
Tennessee: Tennessee Hospitality Association worked to pass a preemption bill. Sponsors of the bill received campaign donations from Tennessee Hospitality Association (log in required on TN web page).
Washington: the Washington Restaurant Association fought against the Seattle paid sick days ordinance.
Wisconsin: the Wisconsin Restaurant Association helped to pass the state preemption bill against paid sick days.