You may remember from such posts as No 7-Eleven on Avenue A that I was was unable to attend the Bodega Walk held February 2, so I decided I would visit the bodegas myself. I did that this weekend. I can’t say that I discovered anything to challenge the assumptions I wrote about earlier, but I did discover one thing, one unintended consequence of the bodega walks, which I’ll address at the end of this post.
I put together a list of questions that I would ask the owners and the the employes, respectively. When I first thought about doing this, I had in mind to speak to the employees as well as the owners, but then I realized that no employee would be able to speak freely with the owner present — this is true regardless of the job — so I abandoned that idea. I decided to ask the owners the Employee questions. It wasn’t as if they wouldn’t know the answers, after all.
These are the questions I prepared:
Do you own this building?
How much do you pay in rent?
Do you live in this neighborhood?
How many people work for you?
Are you worried about 7-Eleven moving into the space on Avenue A and 11th?
What do you think the greatest impact will be on your business?
What are your best-selling items?
Are you paid at least minimum wage?
Are you paid in cash or by check?
Do you get paid sick days? Vacation days?
Are you paid time-and-a-half for overtime?
In all of these bodegas, I met only one owner. It seems that, while Sunday afternoon was a good time for me to venture out, it’s not the time when most owners are on the premises. I asked him the Owner questions above: he does not own the building; he declined to answer the rent question; he lives in the neighborhood; he employs three people; he thinks the 7-Eleven “on the corner” will have a big impact on his business. Since he specified the corner, I asked if another bodega opening on the corner would have the same impact, or was it because it was a 7-Eleven that the impact would be negative? He wasn’t sure. He thinks the greatest impact on his business will be that 7-Eleven has cheaper products. “I have Boar’s Head,”(1) he said. He didn’t know what his best selling items were: “Sandwiches, Cheerios…”.
Then I asked him the Employee questions. I have to say that none of his answers were convincing. Are your employees related? A shrug of the shoulders and a hesitant Yeah. Maybe he thought I meant related to each other? Do you pay your employees at least minimum wage? An equivocating Yes. (It may be that he was caught off-guard by the question and had to quickly think of the ramifications of answering it, but it left me wondering.) Are they paid in cash or by check? Cash. Do they receive paid sick/vacation days? Puckering his lips and raising his shoulders, Yeah. Really? Yeah. The way he responded, I thought that maybe he didn’t understand the question. I thanked him for his time, and set out for the other stores.
At none of the other stores was the owner present. At one, I spoke with a Manager. He said he couldn’t answer the Owner questions, but for Employees he answered: minimum wage, paid in cash, no sick days. In another place, an employee answered all of my Employee questions without hesitation, but told me: You know, 7-Eleven employees don’t have paid sick days either. Only when you have a union do you get those things. At another, one of the employees became very agitated when I asked my questions. He complained about people coming into the store — seven people in the past week, according to him — asking all of these questions about 7-Eleven. He said he was not the owner nor the manager, but told the other employee not to answer any of my questions, and told me I should leave.
This is where the unintended consequences come in. Many bodegas employ undocumented workers. With all of the attention being focussed on them — with the tours and the follow-up visits — I suspect many of these workers go home at night fearful they will lose their jobs, or be deported. Maybe it’s unlikely, but they don’t know who all of these people are, coming in all of a sudden, asking questions. It’s not my intention to expose undocumented workers, but to point out that focussing attention on these bodegas might end up hurting the people most vulnerable. I’m not sure what the No 7-Eleven people hope to achieve with their bodega walks, but if nothing else, they should know that they are affecting the workers in ways they may not have considered. It may be that they don’t care, given some of the comments I’ve seen in other blogs on this topic, and the fact that the leaders of this effort are small-business owners themselves. But if they don’t, it’s something the people in the neighborhood should care about.
If 7-Eleven is to be compared unfavorably to them, then we need to take a broader look at bodegas. All of the workers in the stores I visited are paid in cash. That means that not only are the owners not paying into Social Security, but no unemployment is paid either, so that when employees lose their jobs, they can’t claim unemployment benefits. They won’t even be able to prove they worked. I didn’t get to ask anyone if they were paid time-and-a-half for overtime, but I wouldn’t bet on it. 7-Eleven employees do not get paid sick days, no paid health insurance, and have no prospect for advancement.(2) The thing that puts them in a better position is that they work for a company with a visible profile, and have the chance to organize, the way Starbuck’s and Walmart employees have been.
The situation for workers is bad everywhere. To the degree that the people opposing 7-Eleven are apathetic to the conditions of the people who work in the bodegas, or at 7-Eleven, I cannot bring myself to support their effort.