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Businesses and the Mpls City Council battle over "Working Families Agenda"

Employee at the Co-op Creamery

Employee at the Co-op Creamery

The chatter around local restaurants sounds different these days. Cast aside are pet conversation topics and concerns — the impending minimum wage increase, the ever-escalating price of beef. "How will I find a cook who won't bail six weeks into the gig?" has become "How will I stay open at all?"

At the heart of the discussion is the Working Families Agenda draft proposal put forth by the city of Minneapolis. It's a bundle of rules that would bring restaurant work in line with other industries. Employees would be able to bank on ample sick leave, predictable scheduling, and compensatory pay if their schedules are changed without proper notice.

Workers' rights groups praise the new policy. Servers and cooks are ambivalent. Restaurant owners say the proposed rules would place such an onerous burden on them that they may be forced to take their businesses elsewhere.

If they don't go out of business first.

"Seriously shortsighted"

You took a serving job at Campus Burger. You had an 8 a.m. chemistry class in the spring, a summer Spanish class at noon, and once fall finally rolled around, you took a full course load, but you still had to work, didn't you, because cookies and wine aren't free. And then there would be those shows you wanted to go to every weekend, so not only did you have to change schedules every quarter, you had to hit up the manager to be first cut, because you wanted to get the hell out of there after the dinner rush. Who wants to sit around and marry ketchups for minimum wage after all the diners have gone and the tips have dried up? Not you. Rocking out at First Avenue — that's what kind of guy you are.

Public meeting at the Birchwood Cafe

Public meeting at the Birchwood Cafe

But then, if Campus Burger suddenly had an unexpected Friday rush, your manager might call just as you were sitting down on the couch to the Thin Mints and the Pinot Noir.

"Can you come in?!" she'd frantically bellow. And though a good wine and chocolate buzz beckoned, so did the extra hundred bucks you were liable to pocket, and plus, thanks to your cooperation, you'd be more likely to get cherry shifts or be first cut next Saturday so you could go and see the Flaming Lips at First Ave. It's just the way it works, the way things have always been done. Many employees, as well as employers, say they like it (and need it) to be that way.

But not everyone agrees. And for them, the "Working Families Agenda — Earned Sick Time & Fair Scheduling" would swoop in and upend the status quo.

Employers would be obligated to post schedules 28 days in advance; employees would earn one hour of "predictability pay" for all employer-related changes after the schedule is posted, up to four hours of predictability pay if the schedule is changed with less than 24 hours notice. If an employee is expected to work more than 55 hours in a week or receives less than 11 hours of time off in between work shifts, time-and-a-half pay would kick in. Employees would also earn one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked.

At a 7:30 a.m. public meeting the council held at Turtle Bread a week ago (for further proof that the Minneapolis City Council might be out of touch with the restaurant industry, see: 7:30 a.m. meeting), dozens of small-business owners, but especially restaurateurs, cited strong concerns about the proposal. If passed, this 28-day scheduling ordinance could change the mutually beneficial flexible scheduling arrangement that servers and their bosses have with one another, they said. Never mind that customer behavior patterns are simply too unpredictable for such a rigid scheduling policy.

"At the beginning of last night, we had 20 reservations. A couple hours later, it went up to 60. By the end of the night, we had served about 100," said chef Russell Klein, owner of Minneapolis' Brasserie Zentral and Foreign Legion and St. Paul's Meritage. "How am I going to schedule that 28 days in advance? Are you going to require that my customers reserve their tables 28 days in advance?"

Naomi Williamson, former co-owner of Sanctuary restaurant in downtown Minneapolis, congratulated the Minneapolis City Council on a "shortsighted" plan to address a few bad-acting restaurateurs.

"A restaurant is not a factory. It cannot plan its labor demand based on an order backlog. It does the best job it can to guess how many customers will show up given weather, events, construction, traffic, the draw of nearby shows, and whether reservations get made or canceled. If the Minneapolis City Council can guarantee that customers will schedule themselves to come into the restaurant in an orderly and on-time fashion, then it can require guaranteed shifts for the convenience of the labor it takes to serve them."

Another meeting was held last Thursday at Uptown's Common Roots Cafe where some small-business owners, including Danny Schwartzman, owner of the cafe, spoke in support of some, but not all, of the language in the proposal. But Jacob Toledo, owner of five Minneapolis restaurants including Borough in the North Loop and Coup d'Etat in Uptown, said that people like Schwartzman do not represent the views of most restaurant owners.

"What about someone like Leslie Bock down at Psycho Suzi's who needs to schedule 16 people for her patio business and then it rains? Is she supposed to pay four hours of predictability pay to all of those people?"

He added that the "working families" in his businesses tend to be people in their twenties going to college who rely on the flexibility inherent to their job in order to get to classes or to take time off to work on a paper. He said if this proposal is enacted the way it's written, he will become "the bad guy" in the eyes of his employees.

Nicole Sullivan, a server of almost 13 years, said she wouldn't want to schedule a month in advance.

"It's actually outrageous. I think I enjoy the flexibility the most [about the job], and my place of employment has been great with working around my school schedule. Really, we don't need overtime either. I think most servers do just fine." She did concede that the minimum wage needs a hike.

Rebecca Illingworth of Uptown's newcomer Tinto Cocina y Cantina says that she ran the numbers and the combination of "predictability pay" and sick pay would increase her overall bottom line by 3 percent, a potentially devastating number for an industry that operates on around a 5 to 6 percent profit margin.

"Our increasingly service-based economy is not capable of creating the middle-class incomes, predictability, benefits, and long-term security people want and need," says Williamson. "Are we as a customer base willing to pay the cost for a meal out that it will take to make food service jobs equivalent in pay and benefits to 40-hour-a-week production jobs?"

Tracy Singleton, owner of the Birchwood Cafe

Tracy Singleton, owner of the Birchwood Cafe

Working Families

Not every server is a college student, juggling class time with clocking in. Some workers are trying to support their families on server's wages.

"Waking up to a text message in the morning saying, 'Hey, you're cut today,' can really throw off everything you're trying to do," said one career server who preferred not to have his name used. He is raising a son and a daughter on the money he earns in the hospitality industry — a business he's been in his entire adult life. "For career servers this is a serious thing. We need more stability. We are expecting a certain amount of money, and without that, we are not able to sustain a life for ourselves."

He said that he would be thrilled to work a 40-hour work week, just like his friends in other professions, and that the onus to get clientele in the door should be on ownership — workers should not have hours cut for lack of business.

"They should get creative about getting people in the door. Restaurant owners can get a little bit lazy. After the big opening months and working hard to get critics and people in the door, they figure, 'All I have to do is put up this menu and people will come in.' But no. They have to keep the business relevant. With this technology age you gotta do something unique."

He added that the guidelines in the proposal sound great, at least on paper, and if he can give his employer his work availability in advance for the coming year, then they should offer him the same courtesy.

Greta Bergstrom of the advocacy group Take Action Minnesota has strong concerns that business owners are getting the benefit of the bullhorn as pertains to the Working Families Agenda.

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"Hourly workers have borne the brunt of the responsibility and considerable downsides of flexible scheduling while employers, especially big corporate employers, have enjoyed all the upside. This needs to be rebalanced."

Many of the stories coming from workers represented by Take Action Minnesota and other advocacy groups stem from experiences with large businesses like McDonald's, Chipotle, and Old Country Buffet, rather than small independent restaurants such as the ones owned by Klein, Toledo, and Illingworth.

However, Rod Adams says he has worked for both small and large restaurants, and was subjected to unfair scheduling practices at both, such as being expected to work "clopens" or "turn and burns," as they are often called in the industry. He says that while working at Chipotle he repeatedly was expected to work until 2 a.m. and then be back to work at 6:45 the next morning. After a 30-minute drive from Minneapolis back to his home in Oakdale, a shower, and a little down time, there were many nights where he only got a couple of hours' sleep. It turned him into "a bad employee and an irritable person."

While working two jobs and going to school, he also faced losing one of his jobs if he tried to work out scheduling issues in order to attend another. Working in a restaurant is not about the privilege of buying cookies and wine, he says. It's about bus fare, car repairs, and groceries on the table for his child.

Adams now works for Minnesota Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, a north Minneapolis nonprofit group focused on the intersection of race, the economy, and public policy.

And while he understands the perspective of the server who benefits from a flexible schedule, he believes that there might be another employee standing right next to that one who doesn't. So, he says, just because small-business owners say they are providing fair scheduling practices for their employees, the burden of proof should be on them, and the Working Families Agenda should be broad and overarching, to ensure that the entire workforce benefits from the guidelines, and not just some people.

Surprising support

The potential policy changes come amid an unprecedented boom in Minneapolis' restaurant scene.

“This will stop Minneapolis from being seen as an up-and-coming food city,” says chef Thomas Boemer, center

“This will stop Minneapolis from being seen as an up-and-coming food city,” says chef Thomas Boemer, center

Around a hundred restaurants have opened in the Twin Cities in 2015. Many more are slated for next year. But Thomas Boemer, nationally noted chef/owner of two top Minneapolis restaurants, Corner Table and Revival, says that he and many of his colleagues have stopped considering any sort of expansion or growth to their existing projects in light of the proposal. The financial burden would be too heavy for any other improvements or developments.

"More than a hundred restaurants have opened in the past year, creating an epic amount of jobs — a tidal wave of jobs. This proposal will stop the growth and stop Minneapolis from being seen as an up-and-coming food city — it's going to create a disinvestment in restaurants and small business," he said.

The proposal guidelines also coincide with some soul-searching within the industry. Is how things have always been done indeed the best way? Is tipping anachronistic? Is there another, more effective way to approach server compensation? How can employers make service industry jobs more attractive to potential staff, given the local and national culinary staffing shortage? What benefits do employers need to offer in order to retain more than a transitory staff?

While the questions are interesting ones, few restaurants have made the move to different or more progressive business models like instituting salaries or eliminating gratuities. And it remains to be seen whether the dining community is ready to see tipping go the way of the dinosaur. The implication of that move would mean paying upward of 20 percent more money to the house in order for management to in turn pay an hourly or salaried living wage to employees.

One local restaurant that has made the switch, nixing tipping in favor of higher prices for customers and ostensibly a living wage for servers, is Seward Creamery Co-op. But chef Lucas Almendinger has conceded that "more education needs to be done" so that their customer base can understand the structure, as well as the new, higher prices.

(The sticker shock is very real. A friend of mine and neighbor of Seward Creamery told me he would never return thanks to their "$38 ribeye." Never mind that it would be more like a $30 ribeye if the gratuity weren't included in the price structure.)

Whether or not they're ready for big changes to the dining-out landscape as they know it, the community hasn't been particularly sympathetic to the plight of the business owner, siding primarily with the worker on this issue. In letters to the editor and in the City Pages comments section, most readers have sentiments similar to those of Sarah Moeding, who said:

"So, people who work in restaurants deserve less respect and job security than people in other industries? Bullshit. There is absolutely no reason measures like this won't work, and won't be a huge boon for all aspects of the industry — happier employees who have job security and sick pay, and employers who can no longer abuse their employees because they wouldn't pick up that shift last Saturday."

Or Lizz Brazen, who said, "It is not asking shit to say to businesses: 'You must pay employees for time they planned on working but were then not needed.' Those employees could not make any other plans for that time. They deserve compensation."

Ward 8 council member Elizabeth Glidden is spearheading the issue and has said the Working Families Agenda proposal draft "came from a real place of data on practices of scheduling unpredictability — an issue that has grown and changed over the times without minimum standards." She also said that the proposal should be thought of as just that, and not something that the council plans to finally adopt in its entirety. "I don't know any council member who is saying, 'I will vote one way or another.'"

Asked whether the final outline might contain industry contingencies for customer behavior, weather patterns, and the like, she said if anything they're looking more closely at the size of businesses. "I'm hearing a lot particularly from smaller businesses who say they put a lot of care and effort into their employee relations and want to see that their efforts are properly recognized."

Glidden added that there was "surprising support" for paid sick time, and if businesses weren't already figuring out a way to enact it, that most would be in support of some kind of paid sick leave.

Amol Dixit, owner of food truck Hot Indian and the Midtown Global Market restaurant of the same name, has said he does endorse sick time pay. When it comes to the rest of the proposal, he simply wishes it weren't so overarching.

"I do think it's important to emphasize that most (if not all) small-business owners agree with the spirit of this proposal. But it's the extreme application of it that seriously concerns us. Currently, we are able to develop our own business-specific policies that seem to be working for both the employers and employees. With this new proposal, businesses would no longer have any flexibility to make decisions based upon what is right for them as conditions change.

"I believe we can find common ground on the sick time proposal. It's the fair scheduling proposal that I am most concerned with. I'm also very concerned by the fact that it is such an umbrella proposal, without any acknowledgment of industry-specific dynamics."

Virtually all of the small-business owners we spoke to agree that the city should have included them in the discussion when they began working on the proposal back in April. For many, if not most business owners, they only began hearing of it a couple of weeks ago, and now find themselves on the defensive.

"The narrative has become: 'This Working Families Agenda is out destroy our industry,'" said Tracy Singleton, owner of the longstanding Seward neighborhood Birchwood Cafe, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary. "I don't like seeing this turn into a worker vs. employer story."

She added that she's been looking to implement similar sorts of employee benefits and protections into her budget for a long time, and many of her colleagues agree that their employees deserve some kind of sick pay as well as a reliable schedule.

"But then I feel like I'm standing on one end of the Grand Canyon and on the other end is nine days of sick pay for part-time employees and I'm thinking: Hmm. How am I going to get there? I mean I don't have a wire, I don't have anything. How much money are people going to pay for a frigging savory waffle? Twenty dollars? The thinking now is that employers can just absorb any costs, and the reality is that no, we can't just absorb any costs."

Already, changes to the ordinance are being proposed. At press time, Mayor Betsy Hodges had announced support for reducing the 28-day advanced scheduling to 14 days, the establishment of standards for adequate rest between "clopens," and reasonable implementation time for small businesses to allow for new system establishment. The city council is still accepting input from concerned citizens, and is expected to vote on the proposal by the end of the year.

"I didn't live through the '60s when there was a lot of change and revolution, but now all over the country I'm seeing that we're having a chance to affect social change, which I think is interesting, exciting, and scary," says Singleton. "I've been working in restaurants since I was 14 years old and I never had a paid day off, ever. I want to see that be not just a benefit for a few, but a right for everyone. I want to see that happen. I just hope the city will also understand the flexible needs of small businesses." 

[Correction]: In this article and in the print version, we reported that the draft agenda proposal states that "employees would also earn one hour of paid sick leave for every one hour worked." This is inaccurate. The draft proposal actually states that "employees will earn one hour sick time for every 30 hours worked starting at the first day of work." We regret the error.