by Sean Raycraft
Several years ago, while I was organizing with the Raise the Wage Davis campaign, one of my roles was to talk to working poor folks in town, collecting their stories and working to humanize them in the eyes of the public. Several years later, I’m still trying. Last year, one of the workers I met and talked to years ago told me that his partner was having some serious trouble with her employer, a local cheap pizza place. We agreed to meet up and talk a little about her situation, and see what I could do to help her out.
Gee, a Korean immigrant who is now a good friend, is in her late 20s, and came to our country as a small child. She came to Davis as a UC student roughly ten years ago, and struggled being away from her support structure. She ended up having to leave UC Davis, and work to support herself. She’s had various jobs over the years, mostly in the local food service industry. She and her partner have always struggled to get by, being working poor in Davis. Struggling to keep up with the skyrocketing cost of housing here in town. Through most of their 20s, they were able to stay at a home owned by a family member, after that, they had to really struggle to get by. Fast forward a few years, to us talking over tea about the working conditions at Cenario’s Pizza.
During my time organizing and advocating for poor people, I have heard about and seen a lot of horrible working conditions. Workers every day are told to work in unsafe conditions, dirty conditions, to tolerate wage theft and sexual harassment, exposed to noxious chemicals, degraded and harassed by customers, patrons, other workers and management alike.
What Gee told me about her working conditions truly shocked me. Her boss would routinely “encourage” his employees to participate in his religious events. Employees who chose to participate would get favorable treatment. Her boss would schedule employees on their birthdays, because he didn’t believe in celebrating them. He did so because he could. The management would expect and even force employees to work through their meal breaks, and 10 minute breaks, in violation of all kinds of labor laws. Gee once tried to call in sick with a serious illness, and requested to use some of her sick time, and her boss told her “You can either come to work today, or you can never come back.” This particular gem is a clear violation of California’s AB 1522, the mandatory paid sick days law passed a few years ago. Keep in mind, Gee was working in food service. If she was forced to come to work sick, she would be touching, coughing, and sneezing into the food she was making… for you, the customer. Just so you all know, until fairly recently, Cenario’s Pizza supplied Davis Joint Unified School District with pizza. So yeah, sick workers were making food for your kids.
Her boss would routinely force workers to clock out during their shift when it got slow, and force them to return, punch in and begin work again when business picked up. Some days, the boss would have workers clock in and out four or five times in a given shift. The worker would often be at work for eight hours, and only actually get paid for five hours of work. Just so everyone understands, this practice is illegal in California. Then we talked about the practice of management actually just changing the workers’ clockings. Workers would have to stay late closing up the shop on a busy day, and the boss would just clock them out at their scheduled time, no matter how long they actually ended up working. When Gee pointed out to management that pizza toppings were kept at high temperatures for extended periods of time, her concerns were dismissed, and she was told not to bring up the issue of proper refrigeration again, or she would face discipline or termination.
When workers complained about their treatment to management, they were retaliated against. Their hours and shifts for the following week were cut, just for pointing out the illegal actions of the boss. There is a lot more to say about the labor conditions there, and those that are pervasive in the food service industry. Whether it’s sexual harassment, food safety violations or retaliation in the workplace, food service workers are constantly faced with petty tyrant bosses, and systematic disempowerment and abuse from management. Until recently, Gee was terrified to speak up publicly about the abuses, because she is a non-permanent resident of the United States, and, in order to stay here, she has to reapply for her visa every few years. In the age of Trump, she feared her employer would be able to influence whether or not she could stay. There were other abuses too, of a personal nature that I have promised not to elaborate on. Fortunately for Gee, her situation has changed for the better.
Long after my tea had gone cold, intently listening to Gee talk about her working conditions, with her showing me her pay stubs, emails and clockings, we discussed what to do next. We talked about the various labor law violations, whether or not to take it public, and what we could do immediately to help her situation. For the time being, she didn’t feel comfortable coming forward publicly. I walked her through the hiring process at my company, helped her get and prepare for an interview with our hiring manager. Then I asked some trusted friends about what to do next. I decided to contact a school board member I know about the horrific labor and food safety conditions, and I am happy to say the school district has chosen to go with a different pizza vendor.
This story does have a happy ending. Gee was hired at my company a little more than a year ago, in the food service sector. She works in the fresh cut department, where she has thrived. Sure, she works in a refrigerator, doing tedious, repetitive work, but labor laws are observed. She gets her breaks, her wages are not stolen, she has predictable schedules, she works in a safe, clean, and harassment-free workplace. She has good health insurance for the first time in her adult life. This year, she’s going to be able to take the first paid vacation. She has access to paid sick days, a weekly hours minimum guarantee and a team that values her humanity. When she points out a food safety or workplace safety hazard, she is not punished, she is rewarded. She also has two shop stewards that make sure her rights are not violated.
Why the stark difference in workplace culture? Well, for one, Gee now is protected by a collective bargaining agreement and a strong union to help enforce it. A few weeks ago, she was promoted to be a department head. She’s now making $18 an hour, with good benefits, paid vacations, sick time, and a defined benefit pension plan. The job duties she has now are not all that different from those she had at Cenario’s. She is responsible for keeping her workplace clean, preparing perishable food for immediate consumption, and making sure everything is done safely for workers and consumers.
Today, I asked her what it was like making $18 an hour for the first time. She told me it was as if a great anxiety has been lifted from her shoulders. She knows for the first time ever that so long as she does her job at work, she can be a self-sustaining human being. The personal dignity in knowing that you can make rent at the end of the month and have enough left over to buy some groceries. When I started making $15 an hour, I had a similar feeling. It’s hard to describe that liberating feeling. That moment someone gets the slightest bit of economic security.
In the coming weeks and months, the city council will be considering applications for cannabis dispensaries in town. We as a community, through the city council, have an opportunity to make sure the workers at these dispensaries have the union experience, where they are valued, compensated fairly, and humanized as people through the power of an enforceable collective bargaining agreement. Some applicants have a history of negotiating in good faith and signing collective bargaining agreements, others not so much. These jobs can be jobs like Gee’s, where workers are treated humanely, or these can be jobs where workers can be horribly exploited. This is particularly important for an emerging industry, where labor laws often exist in legal gray areas, and employees are often those with drug-related offenses on their records, are immigrants, or are otherwise disenfranchised from legal protections. Unions can and should bridge that gap.
Please remember to be kind to the people who prepare your food, check you out at the grocery store, bag your groceries, and coming soon… your dispensary workers. They will return your kindness and respect tenfold.
Sean Raycraft is a lifelong Davis resident and proud Shop Steward with UFCW 8