Restaurant workers group vying for a level employment playing field in Asheville

Brainstorming: restaurant workers think of things they'd want in an ideal working situation.

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.

Roundtable: talking workers rights at the W. Asheville library.
Roundtable: talking workers rights at the W. Asheville library.

“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.”

Experience on the job: James Brown, speaking, said labor laws are complex, and that many employers may just be ignorant of the ins and outs of them.
Experience on the job: James Brown, speaking, said labor laws are complex, and that many employers may just be ignorant of the ins and outs of them.

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.

Unions a dirty word: Alia Todd, second from left, said union is a dirty word in North Carolina, and it shouldn't be.
Unions a dirty word: Alia Todd, second from left, said union is a dirty word in North Carolina, and it shouldn’t be.





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About Pat Barcas
Pat is a photojournalist and writer who moved to Asheville in 2014. He previously worked for a labor and social rights advocacy newspaper in Chicago. Email him at Follow me @pbarcas

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9 thoughts on “Restaurant workers group vying for a level employment playing field in Asheville

  1. Big Al

    I’ll bet local restaurant and bar owners are grateful to MtnX for posting pictures of all of these “troublemakers” as they plot against their employers. Smart.

  2. ashevillain7

    I think a bigger issue here is that restaurant jobs have traditionally been seen as a stepping stone to something bigger and better. Now, with the exponential growth of the tourism industry and relative lack of jobs in other industries in Asheville, these same jobs are being seen as the end-game. More and more people are working these jobs with no intent or opportunity to go beyond. Many of them even already have a higher education; most will never use it. A lucky few will get the prominent ‘middle management’ positions (shift managers, kitchen managers, etc.) and they will have it slightly better, but the rest are stuck in the cycle of putting up with somewhat undesirable work environments unless a rare opportunity outside of the restaurant industry opens up for them.

    • J Browne

      Sure, it could look like that at first glance, but there really wasn’t any “bitching.” I think most people there are satisfied in their positions. It was just a sharing of information. Wage law can be pretty complicated, and I think everyone learned some things that can be really helpful, especially to friends who may have not attended who work in places where they’re afraid to address these issues.

  3. Patricia Medlin

    Think of it this way. Are the folks at meetings such as this more interested in their restaurants or “don’t give it hoot, just give me my money”. Looks like they care, not only about themselves, but are also openly involved in their work places. Is this not a “good” thing
    for both employee AND service job?

  4. Jimmy Miller

    Hey whether it may be restaurant workers or the business workers, they are known as employees. So there are already employee laws for the betterment of the employees capability of doing any kind of work. This forces them that yes they have the right to do so and more better. So if you are willing to have restaurant betterment just know all laws of it.

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