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New Bills: Rights in Restaurants, Banning Markers

by Sydney Beveridge, May 21, 2007
 

At each of the City Council's stated meetings, council members introduce bills. Most of them never become laws, but some do. (For the process by which bills become laws, click here). As a regular feature, Gotham Gazette discusses some of the legislation proposed at each meeting.

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Responsible Restaurants

Amid press reports about underpaid and overworked employees in the city’s restaurants, Councilmembers Eric Gioia and Rosie Mendez introduced the Restaurant Responsibility Act.

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The measure, backed by the Brennan Center Strategic Fund and the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, would require establishments to comply with labor laws in order to have their operating permits renewed. By enforcing minimum wage and other labor laws, Bill 569 would combat the widespread cost-cutting measures that many restaurants employ at the expense of their staff.

The restaurant industry is the largest private sector employer in the state, according to Carolyn D. Richmond, a lawyer for Heartland Brewery. And a study by the Restaurant Opportunities Center found that the New York City restaurant industry is expected to account for $13 billion in annual city revenue by 2010.

Counter to this growing wealth, however, is the often bleak reality for the industry’s thousands of workers. Violations of labor laws are widespread in New York City’s restaurants with 59 percent of employees reporting violations of laws governing overtime wages, 52 percent reporting a lack of workplace safety training, and 38 percent reported being burned on the job. Additionally, 73 percent of restaurant workers said they had no health coverage.

A number of lawsuits accuse restaurants of stealing tips from workers and cheating on wages. State Labor Commissioner Patricia Smith said this is because actors and immigrants who normally do not speak up for their rights have become “emboldened” and are speaking up.

Delivery staff are among the restaurant workers leading the trend. For over two months, they have been protesting outside of the Saigon Grill because of firings and what they say are wages as low as $1.60 per hour. Earlier this month students organized a sit-in at the restaurant, and then joined delivery workers on the picket line.

The Restaurant Responsibility Act would elevate the importance of labor laws by requiring disclosure of violations and would create opportunities for public comment on the restaurants’ practices as part of the permit process. The act would also add make the violation information available online, as the city currently does with health violations, and allow the city to conduct hearings on permit renewals.

The government currently has the power to go after restaurants in violation of labor laws, but this act would established a clear mechanism, standards and penalties, according to Eric Lane of the Brennan Center.

Graffiti Wars (Continued)

Councilmember Peter Vallone Jr. introduced legislation to set new limits on materials used to make graffiti, such as aerosol paint, thick permanent markers and etching acid. Aimed at individuals under 25 years old, the law would require written permission for those traveling with these materials for work or school, or who are permitted to use the paints and markers on a particular surface or structure.

Vallone won passage of similar anti-graffiti legislation targeting 18 to 20 year olds last year, but it was struck down by a federal court on first amendment grounds. Mark Ecko, a designer and backer of the lawsuit, pressured Vallone not to challenge the ruling. Vallone dropped the case but instead introduced this measure. Ecko’s lawyer, Daniel Perez, said, however, that the new bill does not address the issues raised by the suit. “I'm almost speechless that he would even propose this to the council, and I hope he tells the council before he gets them to vote for it that this bill has already been struck down as unconstitutional," Perez told the Sun.

A buzz on the anti-graffiti bills has continued in classrooms where graffiti work is studied and conceptualized. Vallone said of the professor and students of a Geek Graffiti class at Parsons School of Design, “He’ll be giving his students As, but we’ll be giving them a misdemeanors.”

Vallone has become a prominent anti-graffiti figure, and was featured in Bomb It, a movie about graffiti artists. Vallone opted not to attend the recent Tribeca Film Festival screening of the film citing that fact that he would be an unpopular guest.

Siting Schools

Over the next five years, the Department of Education plans to lease 30 existing buildings to open new schools. In light of this, Councilmember Robert Jackson introduced Resolution 836 calling upon the state legislature to amend the Public Authorities law so that the buildings leased will be subject to the same community, political and environmental review processes that apply to new school construction.

The safety of school sites came before the City Council earlier this year when it voted on a proposal to build four schools on a toxic dump. Though members of the council and the public voiced concerns, the proposal passed unanimously after the Department of Education agreed to a new plan for cleaning up the area and to make the school siting process more transparent.

Arts Funding

In another resolution on education, Councilmembers Jackson, Oliver Koppell and Dominic Recchia introduced Resolution 837 calling for the Department of Education to maintain a minimum level of arts funding for New York City’s public schools.

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani began Project ARTS (Arts Restoration to the Schools) in 1997 to fund arts education programs. But, according to the resolution, for the past few years, principals have been allowed to spend the arts funding on other projects, thus reducing the amount of money going to arts education. This would recommend that the education department set a baseline of arts funding to ensure that the arts dollars are spent as intended.

Litter

With homeowners grumbling about litter tickets, Councilmember Vincent Gentile introduced bill 568, which would change the city’s rules about litter around residential buildings.. Under the law, tickets would be issued when someone complains to 311 or another agency rather than solely at the discretion of the sanitation agents.

According to the Gentile’s deputy chief of staff, Joe Mancino, the bill was inspired by the increasing number of “dirty area tickets” issued by the Department of Sanitation, often for reasons unclear to the property owner. This proposal and another one to be introduced at the next City Council meeting are intended to clarify the process. A related bill to reduce waste from unwanted circulars and menus also will be put before the council in the coming weeks.

Unsafe Guns

Councilmember Oliver Koppell introduced bill 572 to prohibit the sale and possession of unsafe, low quality guns, commonly referred to as “Saturday Night Specials.” These guns are cheap and easy to conceal, but because of their construction they are especially dangerous to gun owners and the public. And they are frequently used in crimes, according to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The proposal would create a Pistol and Revolver Advisory Committee to advise the police commissioner on which guns violate the police department’s standards. Violation of the law would qualify as a misdemeanor.

Notifying Tenants

Councilmember Jessica Lappin introduced bill 573 to require building owners found to have unsafe conditions on the exterior walls to notify tenants immediately.

Transportation Studies

Councilmembers Vincent Gentile and John Liu introduced a bill that would require the Department of Transportation to conduct studies of traffic accidents, determine the causes of observed patterns, and make recommendations.

Birth Certificates

Councilmember Isabel Palma introduced bill 574 to allow prisoners to receive a birth certificate copy without a fee upon their release.

Commuter Tax

Councilmember Nelson introduced Resolution 841 —a perpetual dream for the reinstatement of the commuter tax.

 


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