March 11, 2009
Rabbis’ Ethics Initiative Evokes Cheers, Criticism
Rabbis’ Ethics Initiative Evokes Cheers, Criticism
Errol Fine, owner of Pat’s Restaurant and Catering, places the fair treatment of his employees high on his list of business priorities. In fact, he hopes soon to put a sign in the window of his popular Pico Boulevard establishment telling his customers as much.
Pat’s could become one of the first local businesses to sign onto a new initiative calling for ethical labor practices in Jewish workplaces in Los Angeles. Launched early this month, Peulat Sachir (“the worker’s wage”) is the brainchild of a group of local Modern Orthodox rabbis hoping to renew Jewish commitment to upholding labor laws in the wake of several national scandals during the past year.
“This initiative will make our community holier and more ethical, and will raise the level of commitment to labor laws and to Jewish law,” said Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation. “It’s about putting the importance of complying with labor law on the radar of this religious community.”
Rabbis and attorneys involved in the movement are asking business owners to sign a statement pledging to treat employees according to state and federal labor laws. The “covenant” document, offered at no cost, focuses on six areas: minimum wage, overtime payment, workers compensation insurance, meal and rest periods, family and personal leave, and anti-discrimination policy.
Employers wishing to take part will agree to open their books to trained volunteers who will verify compliance with the laws in question. Business owners also will agree to undergo biannual site checks and attend seminars on employer obligations and employee rights.
In exchange, leaders of the initiative will encourage patronage of businesses involved and give them priority when choosing vendors for synagogue events.
Establishments with the Peulat Sachir pledge in their windows might also gain a competitive edge among consumers who care about labor issues, said Los Angeles labor attorney Craig Ackermann — the same way stores that promote a green image attract environmentally conscious shoppers.
The rabbis spearheading the movement — who also include Rabbi Daniel Korobkin of Kehillat Yavneh, Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City and Rabbi Steven Weil of Beth Jacob — are first targeting businesses in the Pico-Robertson area that they believe are already in compliance.
“For them, it will be a no-brainer,” Kanefsky said. “All they will be doing is receiving public acclamation for doing what they have always done. Businesses will have everything to gain and nothing to lose.”
But Peulat Sachir organizers are preparing for a wave of criticism nonetheless. Much of the debate over the initiative revolves around one question: Is labor ethics a Jewish issue?
Fine, the owner of Pat’s Restaurant and Catering, thinks it is.
“Rabbis should get involved in more than kashrut,” he said. “I think [the initiative] is important — the community would know that the businesses they support are cognizant of correct business practices.”
But businesses are mandated to uphold labor laws anyway, said Gagy Shagalow, owner of Munchies on Pico Boulevard. An initiative led by religious leaders would have no added benefit to the community, he said.
“This is up to the law — it’s not up to the rabbanim to get involved in legal issues,” Shagalow said. “Either you follow the law or you don’t. The state takes care of businesses that don’t follow the law. It’s not a Jewish issue.”
Muskin and the other rabbis involved disagree. They say Judaism should not be confined to the synagogue, and point out that traditional Jewish law extends to marketplace regulation.
Choshen Mishpat, a text that outlines business ethics, is a heavily studied section of halachah (Jewish law), Muskin said. Members of the Jewish community are required to obey the “laws of the land” (Choshen Mishpat, 369:11), and the Torah commands employers to pay workers promptly and accurately because their lives depend on it (Deuteronomy 24:15).
“We have an obligation, as Jews, to be a light unto the nations and to set an example of ethical and moral behavior in all walks of life,” Korobkin said. “We’re supposed to be as observant in our offices and our homes as we are in our synagogues. For an observant Jew, his observance should be manifest in the way that he runs his business — not just in whether or not he wears a kippah or eats kosher food.”
The initiative was conceived in October in response to allegations of routine worker mistreatment at the country’s largest kosher meatpacking plant last spring, and has taken on new significance since Wall Street money manager Bernard Madoff’s December arrest on charges of running a $50 billion investment fraud.
News of rampant labor violations at the AgriProcessors slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa — including more than 9,000 child labor charges and workers’ claims of long hours, shorted pay and sexual harassment — shook the community in the wake of a federal immigration raid on the plant last May. Former manager Sholom Rubashkin was arrested Oct. 30, 2008, on allegations of knowingly hiring undocumented workers and covering up their illegal status with false identification.
“There were a number of stories in the news where Jews were portrayed in a bad light that I felt we, as a community, needed to address,” Korobkin said.
As kosher consumers reeled, the rabbis sought to counter the bad press with an educational initiative to bring ethical standards back to the forefront of community consciousness.
Bringing on labor lawyers and lay business leaders to flesh out the plan, the group first pursued the idea of certifying that local businesses were in compliance with labor laws through a seal of approval. But a seal might imply that they were providing rabbinic supervision over businesses, the group felt, which they lacked the resources to do. Also, if the initiative grew beyond the Jewish community, the rabbis didn’t want restaurant patrons to confuse a certificate of kosher business practices with one of kosher food.
Settling on a covenant-style agreement instead, the rabbis decided they would ask employers to sign a voluntary statement of intent to uphold labor laws, which the group would back through spot checks of participating businesses.
The nonprofit Bema’aglei Tzedek launched a similar measure in Israel in 2004 that recognizes restaurants pledging to treat its cooks and servers by ethical labor standards. That program has now grown to more than 300 restaurants.
In Los Angeles, the rabbis felt starting small and locally would be an effective way to bring the lessons of AgriProcessors home.
“This would be something that people would literally see on a daily basis, and they would have to make choices on a daily basis,” Kanefsky said. “It’s very real and very immediate; it’s not in Iowa — it’s on Pico Boulevard.”
Businesses that apply for the covenant and are found to be in violation of labor laws, however, won’t be penalized, the rabbis say.
“We are not here to condemn, or to single out, or to expose any businesses that are not in compliance,” Korobkin said. “We are just here to heap praise and promotion on businesses that are.”
Peulat Sachir representatives will be bound by a confidentiality clause in which they agree not to publicize what they find on-site, said Ackermann, the labor lawyer who helped craft the initiative. “[Employers] might be concerned about, ‘Are you going to hand this over to the labor commissioner?’ That’s not going to happen,” he said.
In some cases, he added, business owners might simply be unaware of certain labor laws — such as that workers in California are entitled to a 30-minute meal break on shifts longer than five hours, or that employees on the clock for more than eight hours must be paid 1 1/2 times their regular rate in overtime.
At businesses found to be lagging, owners might have to spend a bit more to shore up old policies. Employers who feel they can’t afford to make changes in the current economic climate won’t be forced to sign on, Korobkin said. “Any business that feels that it’s not economically feasible to sign onto the covenant won’t be pressured to do so.”
Still, Ackermann said, “labor laws are not voluntary to begin with” and businesses that disregard them leave themselves open to government investigation and penalties.
The initiative does not address the issue of undocumented workers, which Ackermann said is “too complicated, too controversial” for such a small group. But the wage and break laws outlined in the covenant apply to documented and undocumented workers alike.
Another concern is that businesses might see the initiative as an “unnecessary headache” that might be too intrusive or time-consuming. Site testers will visit each business twice a year to check a random sampling of employee records — a process that might take, at most, an hour or two, Ackermann said. The site testers will be labor lawyers and trained volunteers, similar to the mashgiachs who monitor the kosher status of restaurants.
Any business with employees is eligible for the covenant, including synagogues, schools, restaurants, supermarkets, medical practices and dry cleaners.
The ultimate goal is not to regulate businesses, Korobkin said, but rather to boost the profile of labor laws on the Jewish communal agenda: “Our whole objective is to raise awareness in the community that these things are important to Jews.”