Small restaurant jobs not protected under California's "Right to Recall" law

Despite a new labor law passed in California last month that requires employers in certain service industries to call back laid-off workers in order of seniority, many restaurant workers aren't getting their jobs back. Small restaurants, which make up a large portion of food employers in the Bay Area, are not included in the law.

The "Right to Recall" law makes similar local ordinances in cities - including Oakland, San Francisco and San Diego - widespread across the state.

This law may yield a positive change for older workers, who are disproportionately not being called back to work, and who face rampant age discrimination in employment. 

The industries included in the law include airport hospitality, hotels, event centers, janitorial services and other industries that have been devastated by COVID-19. However, non-chain restaurant employees are notably excluded from this new law. 

Labor organizers told KTVU that in restaurants, many workers are not being called back in order of seniority, or sometimes at all. 

"What we're seeing in San Francisco is that workers are not being called back," said Jennifer Alejo, Co-Director at Trabajadores Unidos Workers United. "Workers who are being called back, maybe they’re not able to get their full shift back--are doing part time. We're also not seeing seniority not really be respected."

Alejo said she’s observed a lot of favoritism and age discrimination as factors in who gets called back to work in restaurants.

The new law comes at a time when there is what some call a "labor shortage" and what others call a "wage shortage" in the restaurant industry. As the economy reopens, many restaurants are unable to fill open positions at low wages, and often without offering health insurance or retirement options.

And undocumented workers, who make up a substantial part of the restaurant workforce, have been surviving during the pandemic, post-layoffs, without a safety net. Alejo said some of these workers are now looking towards other industries after not being called back to their jobs. 

"Folks who are undocumented, or you know, immigrant communities, there's no clear process, there's no unemployment, there's not that type of support," she said. 

Maria Moreno, a community organizer with Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, said that many workers in the Bay Area are reckoning with what it means to have a career in the service industry, after either surviving working through the pandemic, or being laid off.

"We have a ton of workers both from undocumented, to the most privileged workers in our industry, realizing, is this really an industry that I want to go back to, when I am so vulnerable?" Moreno said. "And this is not going to be the last pandemic that we ever see?"

Alejo said that many workers who haven’t been called back to work are transitioning to domestic work and janitorial work. 

Others who worked as cooks are now selling their own food—"selling their own food and going out to the Mission and posting up," she said.

"We're definitely seeing a new economy," she said. "You know, immigrant community, working class folks, they will do what needs to be done to survive and take care of their families."

And in this new economy, some workers are approaching their jobs differently, or looking for new ones altogether. Matt Schuster, owner and chef at Canela in San Francisco, said that for many restaurant workers, being laid off is the first time people have had any kind of break in years.

"The momentum stopped," he said. "They realized, I don't want to work every night and every weekend and every weekend night and every holiday."