The restaurant workers of Asheville would like a greater return on all the hard work they contribute to the city’s booming tourism and hospitality industry.
“It’s frustrating, because it’s a tourist-based economy in Asheville. Some people are benefiting, and the workers are not seeing their fair share of the return,” said Vicki Meath of Just Economics of WNC, a worker advocacy group.
Workers gathered Feb. 23 to discuss their rights, and the ins and outs of state and federal worker protection laws. The meeting was held by Alia Todd, an organizer with the Asheville Sustainable Restaurant Workforce.
“Asheville is doing really great now, and it’s time for restaurant workers to do great too,” said Todd. “This year, we’re all about empowerment- what do we need to do to get out there and spread information?”
They spoke of instances of being told to work off the clock, sharing tips in illegal ways with the back of the house, having no sick days and having to come in to work no matter what, and generally having no say in their work environment.
Meath spoke of a time on the job where she had a dispute with her employer. She felt she was in the right, but, with many restaurant workers and not that many jobs in Asheville, the balance of power was not in her favor.
“They showed me a stack of completed job applications and said, ‘you don’t want to do what I say, here are people who do,'” said Meath. “That’s Asheville. We’re underemployed here and the workers have no power.”
The dozen workers who attended the meeting held brainstorming sessions on what they think of the economy in Asheville, and what their list of wants includes in the restaurant industry. Among the one word descriptors of the economy: booming, exclusive, tourism, owner-driven, changing, and disproportionate.
Among the top of the list of wants are a living wage, having a say in the hiring and firing process of a restaurant, profit sharing, representation, stiffer penalties for restaurant owners breaking labor laws, an employee handbook, a transparent promotion policy, and sick days.
One man who attended works as a dishwasher and said cooks are even expected to go in to work sick. He described it as a public health issue and a “disease fest.” The workers said that most restaurants operate on a skeleton crew, and that if you are sick, you either come in, find someone else on very short notice, or get fired.
James Brown, who works as a bartender at the Asheville Yacht club, said he’s worked at many restaurants in Asheville, and some labor violations may just be ignorance.
“I don’t think they break labor laws on purpose. They’re just ignorant. Many owners used to be waiters or bartenders, and that’s how they were treated,” said Brown. “If I thought these restaurants did that on purpose, I wouldn’t work there.”
Above all, the workers wanted to stress they only want a fair shake.
“The fact that any word of organization in the south is frowned upon is disheartening,” said Meath. “We need each other, workers and restaurants, it’s an interconnected relationship. Employers who are doing the wrong things are sometimes put at a competitive advantage over those that are ethically right. We want to change that dynamic. Let’s reward the employees who are good stewards of the community.”
The group plans to meet more in the future to discuss solutions and ways to better the situations of restaurant workers in Asheville.