What would a food media that de-centers employers look like?

... and a quick note on whether workers can decline unsuitable re-hiring offers and still qualify for unemployment

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If you haven’t yet watched this conversation with Imani Perry and Kiese Laymon, please do: Imani Perry In Conversation with Kiese Laymon: On the Uprising since George Floyd's Murder and Black Struggles for Freedom in the United States.

And if you haven’t seen Samanta Helou Hernandez’s terrific photo essay about Virgil Village, please click on over there.


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What would a food media that de-centers employers look like?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week, with story after story about awful working conditions at Sqirl coming to light: discrimination, cooks of color not credited for the creations that launched the restaurant’s success, unsanitary and unhealthy hidden kitchens where job duties included scraping mold off jam. Joe Rosenthal, who compiled these stories on his Instagram page, made it clear that workers were coming through with this information; locally, LAist captured the situation in its headline, as did L.A. Taco. The Los Angeles Times spoke to former workers there. But so much of the other immediate coverage I saw focused almost entirely on the mold and Koslow, with workers sort of the secondary or ancillary part of the story. Here, for example, is Eater LA’s take:

The subhed has since been changed; it now reads “mistreated workers.” But that original version — as well as an earlier subhed that took pains to identify Peter Meehan’s behavior as anything other than abusive — is revealing enough. Characterizing these workers as simply having a case of the unhappy minimizes and dismisses their claims; it also reflects how quickly this story moved away from workers, and how easy it is to erase or dismiss the hard labor that labor invested in order for this story to come to light in the first place.

This isn’t, of course, super surprising. There’s a bunch of stuff out there critical of celebrity chef culture so I won’t rehash all that here, but the celebritization of chefs — and restaurateurs and, to some extent, food editors — in an awful lot of food writing is, I think, is symptomatic of a larger issue related to the way these subjects are prioritized, uncritically centered, and often reflexively looked to for answers to issues. Chef statements, especially about their staff and workplace culture, are allowed to go unchecked; coverage of wage issues often skew in favor of management; freelance pitches are rejected for not having enough of a hook to a name chef or restaurant; award systems celebrate chefs with very little vetting of said chefs; a New York Times food reporter can joke about Gabrielle Hamilton making a joke “about getting cancelled and surviving!”

Of course, there is a ton of great food writing, journalism, and reporting that has nothing to do with restaurants or chefs! And some really great work documenting how the pandemic has affected food workers. So for those stories that do involve chefs and restaurants in some way or another: What would look like if they weren’t so often nudged to the center of the story? How would the reporting process change? What could grow in the spaces that open up? How would I approach things differently? A few back-of-the-napkin possibilities:

  • It might mean our fields of vision broaden so we recognize them as both creators and employers.

  • It might mean employer statements and quotes are received a little more critically. At the very least, their statements are more routinely fact checked?

  • It might mean the very bones of pieces are reconsidered. For instance, should an owner or manager or chef who committed, or has been credibly accused of committing, wrongdoing have the last word in a story? Or should someone else be the last voice a reader hears before leaving the piece? If an issue will adversely affect workers more than it will benefit employers — issues like say, the minimum wage, or tipping — shouldn’t the story source at least as many worker voices as owner voices?

  • Hopefully it would mean a shift in priorities, so more time and resources are dedicated to meaningfully acting on tips about wage theft and harassment and discrimination before shit hits the moldy fan and the publication needs a quote from an affected worker.

  • It might mean we really interrogate how a dish was created, especially if that dish is the reason for the restaurant’s success. We might do the work to understand that the practice of not crediting workers for their creations is one that reinforces a racist, classist structure, and so resist engaging in that practice.

  • Related to the above, we might start to see and acknowledge the collaboration and teamwork in a food enterprise

  • In my experience, there are many writers and editors who identify, or want to identify, more with chefs than they do workers. That perspective can’t help but influence coverage. De-centering employers, then, might mean that food media will really contend with its issues with class. Alicia Kennedy and Korsha Wilson have written about food and class better than I can; I’ll just reiterate the urgent need to be more critical about catering to, and perpetuating, white middle- and upper-class ambitions and desires. Those ambitions and desires, after all, often rely on everyone else’s economic immobility to keep relative class positions secure. They also require lower classes and people of color to be invisible — or maybe visible only when expressing gratitude.

A whole lot would have to be re-imagined, I think, for this sort of de-centering to happen: a reformulation of how much writers are paid, how much investment is made in investigative journalism, who edits, what sort of training writers and editors have access to, what stories are commissioned, who has legal protection and how much, how individual biases are accounted for, who oversees coverage, who is hired into positions of power, etc. If it happens at all, this reboot would take a while to start up. Honestly, I just don’t see many current major media gatekeepers willing to yield their time.

What I do see are thoughtful indie food publications going strong out there, thank goodness, and others writing their own newsletters (hello!). And it doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that so many recent stories, in food and other industries, have broken outside the usual channels. Like so many institutions, the media has as much power as we give it — right?


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Quick note. A few weeks back, the Los Angeles Times ran a great but maddening story about restaurant workers laid off at the onset of the crisis, and then getting new job offers … in maintenance. Workers were informed their unemployment benefits could be jeopardized if they didn’t accept the offer. That piqued my interest: That threat seems to fly directly against provisions in the Uninsurance Code that require job offers to be suitable.

I asked the state Employment Development Department about it; they didn’t respond to the specific facts in the LA Times piece, but I thought it was still helpful guidance — screenshot of their email is below, after the signoff. The key bullet point, I think:

“An individual may not be disqualified for refusing work that is considered unsuitable. For example, where the work that is offered is not in the individual’s usual occupation, and is not appropriate based on the individual’s prior training and experience, the position offered would not likely be suitable.”

The maddening thing, of course, happens when the claim is contested by the employer. As a worker in the piece pointed out, an appeal is not an insignificant process, and that’s true even if your chance of success is high. And what if you don’t want to go back to even a suitable job, because cases are spiking and you’re wary of exposure? The San Francisco Chronicle did a piece that dives on this question.

General disclaimer: None of this is legal advice, consult the EDD or a lawyer if you have questions! But hopefully this helps anyone wrestling with this.


Until next time-

tien.

*Here’s the EDD’s response: