Restaurateurs have clean conscience about dirty business

Slopers in guilt trap as restaurants shortchange deliverymen
The Brooklyn Paper / Tom Callan

The crackdown by State Department of Labor officials on 25 Park Slope restaurants last month has been the talk of the neighborhood, but few in the famously liberal enclave have dared to address the real dirty secret lurking behind the kitchen door: The bulk of restaurant workers are not only enduring long hours and low wages, but they’re here illegally.

The Labor Department crackdown at the eateries was limited to wages — but even some of the restaurateurs slapped with fines said the state is ignoring the much larger problem.

“The elephant in the room is that all these restaurants use undocumented labor,” said Irene Lo Re, the owner of Aunt Suzie’s, which was fined for allegedly underpaying workers.

While conducting the sweep, the Department of Labor wasn’t concerned with workers’ immigration status, but restaurant owners sure are. Their entire operations would be unthinkable without such a steady, dependable labor pool.

“They are the most dedicated workers,” said one chef who was not caught in the wage crackdown. “They’re here to work. They’re not here to f— around, as opposed to some culinary kid just out of school who has something to prove.”

Restaurateurs have a sizeable workforce to look to — there are roughly 925,000 undocumented immigrants in New York State, the vast majority in the metropolitan area, according to a 2009 study by the Pew Research Center.

Still, despite the huge chunk of New Yorkers living in a legal gray area, Slopers professed shock at the news that so many restaurants right around the corner were accused of underpaying their workers — some of whom got just $2.75 per hour, or $4.50 per hour below the minimum wage.

“I was sad because those were places I had gone to,” said David Chorlian last week. “I was stupidly surprised that this happened.”

The anonymous Park Slope chef had stern words for any locals who were surprised.

“Wake up and smell the flowers,” he said. “People should know undocumented immigrants are the backbone of restaurants. It’s not going to change anytime soon. Fifty percent of all hospitality labor in the Slope is undocumented.”

In the wake of the wage crackdown, many owners bristled at the accusation that they were abusing their workers.

“The immigrants I love, it’s the Americans I hate,” said Martin Medina, the owner of Rachel’s on Fifth Avenue.

Zaid Demis, owner of Olive Vine Café, one of the two allegedly worst offenders, struck a similar tone.

“I’m not picking on foreigners, I’m an immigrant myself,” Demis said. “Give them workers papers, then I’ll put them on the books.”

A Labor Department spokeswoman bristled at the notion that the agency should fix America’s broken immigration system. Its job, said Michelle Duffy, is merely to ensure that laborers are paid properly.

“When we’re doing an investigation, we’re looking to make sure you’re getting paid fairly, period,” said Duffy.

But in these trying economic times, eatery owners are in a bind. If they pay their workers full wages, then the price of meals will go up.

“God forbid the turkey burger goes up $2 to reflect the required worker’s insurance and fair wage,” the renowned restaurateur Alan Harding cracked.

But if Slopers are hesitant to give up a cheap burger prepared by cheap labor, they still might find a reason to steer clear of the restaurants that are guilty of labor abuses.

A 2005 study found a correlation between labor violations and health code violation.

Apparently, overworked and underpaid cooks are less likely to think twice before sneezing or spitting on a $20 T-bone.