Greenwich Village — Whether they're waiters leafletting outside some of Midtown's better-known bistros or bicycle deliverymen picketing popular Asian eateries, mistreated restaurant workers displaying their complaints onsite is practically a common sight these days – and a mode of redress workers often find effective.

The sector's underpaid and overworked may soon have another tool in their arsenal, however, and potentially an even more powerful one. If a new bill is approved by City Council, New Yorkers will be able to go online and check not only if their favorite restaurants have a rat problem, but also if they mistreat their workers.

Councilmembers Eric Gioia of Queens and Rosie Mendez of Manhattan introduced the Responsible Restaurant Act on May 9, which would require restaurants seeking to renew their operating licenses to disclose to the health department any violations of city, state or federal labor laws and minimum wage laws. The city could consider this information when deciding whether to renew licenses, which happens every two years.

The public would also have a chance to comment on the reports or request a hearing. At present, employment law violations are addressed by the state Department of Labor or, increasingly, through civil lawsuits.

Mendez’s legislative director, Gregory Geller, said the councilwoman saw a strong need for legislation to protect the roughly 165,000 restaurant workers in the city. “Under Pataki, there was a widespread feeling in that industry that it was totally unregulated, so you had workers who were being paid way below minimum wage, [with] stolen tips and folks coming to work sick,” Geller said.

The groups behind the bill, the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC-NY) and the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, say the legislation is designed to reward restaurant owners who are doing the right thing and send a message to the others that the city, and their patrons, are watching.

“The goal isn’t to shut down restaurants, but in the most egregious situations, to let restaurants know that the city will be considering their violations,” said Raj Nayak, the Brennan Center attorney who drafted the legislation.

The bill is the first of its kind in the nation, and Nayak said it could create a model for other cities. “New York courts have said for years that New York City has the power inherently to decide whether to grant someone a license. What we’re doing is creating a process for the city to carry this out,” Nayak added.

Restaurant industry lobbyists disagree. “I think ROC and the politicians who introduced this law are just looking to create press opportunities,” said E. Charles “Chuck” Hunt, executive vice president of the Restaurant Association of New York. “I just don’t understand why this organization figures that the only people that have labor law violations are the restaurant industry,” Hunt said, adding that there are already plenty of laws on the books regarding wage and hour violations.

Supporters of the bill say those laws are rarely enforced. A 2005
report by the Urban Justice Center found that 59 percent of the 530 workers surveyed at New York City restaurants claimed they experienced overtime wage violations, 13 percent earned less than the minimum wage, and 19 percent said management took a cut of their tips, which is illegal.

Gabriel Martinez, 24, a restaurant worker and ROC member participating in a Midtown protest May 21, thinks the Responsible Restaurant Act will put more pressure on employers to comply with the minimum wage and other labor laws. “It’s sad that we need another law to enforce the law that’s already there,” he said.

ROC members say weekly pickets at certain restaurants have led to improved conditions, but that lawsuits could drag on for years. One pedestrian passing the picketers, Tulio Hernandez, thought publishing labor violations online through the Health Department’s website, as outlined in the legislation, would be very effective. “These people only understand money, so you have to get them where it hurts,” he said.

Rosanne Martino, manager of the upscale Greenwich Village restaurant One if by Land, Two if by Sea, supports the bill because she says it levels the playing field.

Martino is part of the Restaurant Industry Coalition – another project of ROC-NY – which is developing a code of conduct that restaurants can sign onto to publicly display their intention to comply with minimum wage and overtime laws, and their willingness to take extra steps to protect workers. Restaurants that sign on will be promoted during Restaurant Week in July, according to Rajani Adhikary, policy organizer for ROC.

“There are a lot of things that go on in the restaurant industry that are very standard but illegal,” Martino said. “You keep more money if you’re not doing things right, so it makes it difficult to compete.”

Martino said the labor laws are designed to protect both workers and customers by improving safety and overall conditions. “When you cut corners, you cut corners everywhere people can’t see,” she said.

The impact of cost-cutting measures was borne out in another study ROC released in April 2006, Dining Out, Dining Healthy. The study shows that many of the restaurant owners that violate basic laws also tend to violate the city’s Health Code, putting diners’ health at risk.

- Heather Appel