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Here's a Tip, More Challenges to Right to Work Laws on the Way

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You can say one thing about South Florida: Going out to eat is a big part of its lifestyle and culture.

In a recent study, Miami and Boca Raton ranked in the top 10 American cities where citizens eat out more than the average American. To a great extent, Florida in is defined by its restaurant industry not only in a cultural sense, but also in economic impact. According to the National Restaurant Association, the industry employs over 840,000 people -- 11 percent of the entire state's workforce.

What also defines South Florida, too, in terms of employment may be the dismal pay and working conditions for some workers in that industry.

And there are signs of a surging push back against abuses by those employers who act with impunity in this and other 19 right to work states.

Recently, about 350 supporters picketed the Mardi Gras casino -- and 26 were arrested -- protesting the firing of 10 employees for trying to organize there, where they say the working conditions are unsatisfactory.

The U.S. Department of Labor is issuing new rules to help deal with a growing trend in the hospitality business in Florida and around the nation -- the abuse of H1A guestworkers in hotels and restaurants, a practice that raises questions when so many Florida residents are out of work.

Then there are the individuals stories and anecdotes.

Recently, a waitress who I will call Mary recently emailed me -- she wanted me to write a story about the lousy pay and dismal conditions that local waiters and waitresses can work under in some eating establishments in Florida.

According to Mary, most of those she knows waiting tables live close, or in, poverty.

In Florida, while the minimum wage is $7.67 an hour, tipped employees are paid only $4.65 an hour. That's under $40 bucks a day.

To avoid going on welfare, Mary works seven days a week, sometimes up to 16 hours a day. On a good week, she takes home $500 in tips -- along with her paycheck, the fruits of her hard work barely covers her rent, her gas, and her grocery bill. But she remains self-sufficient and refuses to get assistance from the government.

Mary told me that many of her co-workers have no choice but to become part of a growing number of impoverished workers in Florida receiving food stamps and other government assistance. What frustrates Mary the most is that no one wants to act when there are abuses at her place of employment.

She said she has filed complaints with the Florida Board of Labor, she has tried to retain attorneys, and has written public officials -- she showed me a stack of responses that all said the same thing -- there's nothing that can be done.

She's told over and over again: Florida is a right to work state and the employers can basically do what they want.

Many are predicting that Governor Scott Walker's victory in the recall election last week is just the beginning of the end of labor union influence in the nation's workplace.

In fact, earlier this year, Indiana became the first state in a decade to become a right to work state and the trend is expected to continue because of Walker's victory and the argument that right to work states are more likely to spur economic growth.

Yet, the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute published a study last year which found that the claim that right to work states allows more economic growth is false and that "the simple reality is that RTW laws undermine the resources that help workers bargain for better wages and benefits."

The study concluded that that "right to work" laws are associated with significantly lower wages and reduced chances of receiving employer-sponsored health insurance and pensions.

Like eating out, "right to work" workplaces define our Florida culture that condones and even encouraging subsistence living for a good segment of those employed in major industries like the hospitality industry.

But as times continue to remain tough, and hardworking people get sick and tired of struggling to survive -- and some like Mary, who has endured a career of abuse in the workplace -- we may want to rethink our attitudes toward our waiters and waitress so that their hard work can once again result not only in profits, but the revival of the concept of allowing people to fulfill the American dream.

Published in the Sun Sentinel on June 14, 2012

Steven Kurlander publishes his blog at www.stevenkurlander.com and writes every Thursday in the Sun Sentinel and every Friday in The Florida Voices. His email is steven@stevenkurlander.com