Baltimore Sun Op-Ed Highlights Workers’ Experiences As Reported in United Workers’ Joint Report with NESRI

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Inner Harbor’s poverty zone

Report reveals low wages, inhumane conditions for food workers in Baltimore’s tourist hub

By J. Peter Sabonis

5:20 PM EDT, May 12, 2011



Imagine being told your employer is closing its doors for good in two days, but you’ll get paid for the next 60 days. Then imagine discovering that your paycheck for those 60 days is cut nearly in half.

That’s what many ESPN Zone workers say happened when the Disney-owned chain closed its flagship restaurant last June after 12 years in the Inner Harbor. Workers had to scramble to pay rent, mortgages, utility bills and loans. Some say the pay cut caused homelessness.

Whether such a practice is legal under the federal Workers Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act — legislation designed to ease harm to workers when large companies close suddenly — was debated in U.S. District Court by lawyers from both sides last month.

But the treatment of ESPN Zone workers is symptomatic of larger problems for those who labor at the street level in our tourism-based local economy: work without respect, dignity or much reward.

The United Workers, a nonprofit human rights organization that spearheaded a successful campaign to get living wages for cleaners at Camden Yards in 2007, allege as much in "Hidden in Plain Sight," a new report on Inner Harbor restaurant work. After interviewing 1,000 workers over a three-year period, the United Workers paints a picture of service-sector work where barriers to adequate incomes, health care, worker dignity and quality of life abound.

Maryland’s Department of Human Resources estimates that a family of three needs $401 a week for subsistence, but the state’s Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation puts the median wage for "food preparation and serving related" jobs at $363 per week. Hidden in Plain Sight notes these poverty wages but also reports that tip sharing by servers, food runners, bartenders and table bussers often leaves servers earning less than minimum wage.

Restaurant supervisors allegedly "clock out" workers before shifts are finished and encourage servers to work "off the clock" for tips only. When business slows, higher-wage workers claim they are sent home first.

Longer-tenured workers say they are laid off by restaurants when pay raises are expected, then rehired at lower wages. One restaurant allegedly pays overtime (and some wages) through a debit-card system that charges workers fees to access their earnings.

Health insurance, while offered by most restaurants, is not affordable or is subject to unreasonable conditions. Not surprisingly, wage garnishment actions for unpaid medical bills are common.

Sick employees must produce doctor’s notes — and then are penalized for missed time with diminished work schedules. Two-thirds of those surveyed said employers did not respond "appropriately" to workplace injuries.

Then, there’s sexual discrimination and harassment.

In one case, a pregnant server who couldn’t fit into the tight dress that the restaurant required her to wear saw her work hours progressively reduced to none. In another, customer harassment of a waitress was ignored by a restaurant manager.

As scheduling determines earnings, workers have little choice but to heed employer demands. Workers recount grim trade-offs between work hours and family, educational and personal exigencies.

To add insult to injury, one restaurant supervisor allegedly runs a side "snack and soda" business, where the quid pro quo for employee snack purchases is choice work hours.

These are not the complaints of workers in an isolated industry sector. Baltimore hitched its wagon to tourism in the 1970s with a foresight and skill unmatched by other fading industrial cities.

The plaudits given the late Mayor William Donald Schaefer for the vision and leadership that created the Inner Harbor are deserved. But were the roughly $2 billion in federal, state and city subsidies for the Inner Harbor designed to create a poverty zone?

The United Workers posits a new "human rights based" economic development model, where publicly backed projects lead to living wages and health care for workers and are characterized by transparency, public participation and accountability.

Unlike most development approaches, which are designed primarily to increase tax revenues through increased commerce, the human rights approach prioritizes worker and community benefits rather than leaving them as hoped-for byproducts of increased commerce.

Indeed, the original public subsidies that created the Inner Harbor could have been tied to living wages and health care for workers. The United Workers is now engaged in a campaign for Inner Harbor developers to require as much, through restaurant leases.

The marketplace is not a zero-sum game. Living wages, health care, worker dignity and economic profit can co-exist. Many of us labor daily at jobs that prove it.

If there are some industries where this is impossible, we should avoid subsidizing them with tax dollars. In the meantime, there’s work to be done transforming work at the Inner Harbor.

Peter Sabonis, formerly assistant director of advocacy for income security at Maryland Legal Aid, is counsel to the United Workers and is not involved in the ESPN Zone lawsuit. His email is .