Orthodox group’s ethical seal gains ground

Before Gilberto Escobar, the head baker at Bibi’s Bakery and Cafe, starts preparing the pita, cinnamon rolls, challah or anything else that comes out of the kosher bakery’s ovens, first he has to get through what he called the hardest part of his job.

“Levantarme” (getting up), Escobar said.

Starting a shift at 3 a.m., six days a week, doesn’t sound easy, but at least the 27-year-old baker knows he’ll be treated fairly when he gets to work.

In March, the Pico Boulevard bakery became the 100th kosher-certified business in North America and the 10th in Los Angeles to receive the Tav HaYosher, an “ethical seal” issued by the five-year-old Modern Orthodox Social Justice organization Uri L’Tzedek.

Food earns the kosher designation for the ingredients it contains and for following strict laws of preparation. The Tav, on the other hand, is something different — the seal indicates how a kosher-certified restaurant, caterer or supermarket treats its employees. The Tav is awarded only after the staff and volunteers of Uri L’Tzedek ensure — through interviews with a business’ owners and its employees, and by inspecting its records — that workers’ hours are tracked accurately, that they get to take the breaks to which they’re entitled, are paid overtime when they work more than 40 hours in a week and are generally treated in accordance with the laws of the land.

“It’s the Jewish community’s way of saying that we don’t only care that the food is kosher,” Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, president and founder of Uri L’Tzedek, said. “We also care about the workers’ welfare.”

While California law mandates both the length and number of breaks bosses give their workers, many restaurants — including kosher restaurants — don’t comply.

“Meal breaks and work breaks are issues” in the restaurant business, said Michael Feldman, an attorney who specializes in labor law and is a member of Uri L’Tzedek’s Los Angeles Advisory board.

According to a 2011 survey of more than 500 restaurant employees in Los Angeles, 54 percent reported having worked more than eight hours without a break; 44 percent reported having been denied overtime payments.

“The bigger the business, the less chance that you’re going to have some of the more egregious stuff, like minimum-wage violations or overtime violations,” Feldman said.

But the kosher-certified eateries and caterers that are considered for the Tav are all small businesses. For these owners, paying workers time-and-a-half for every hour worked each week beyond 40 hours can seem an expensive proposition.

Dan Messinger bought Bibi’s at the beginning of this year from an owner who did not pay workers overtime.

“I did the math — it’s going to cost me more money, there’s no question,” Messinger said. “But I didn’t think that I would feel good about the business I was running if, for X hundreds of dollars a month, I’m not willing to run it the right way.”

The Tav is modeled on a similar program run by an Israeli social justice organization and is intended to become a guide for consumers, to encourage them to patronize businesses that adhere to ethical standards.

This is not the first effort to bring an increased awareness of ethical treatment of workers to Los Angeles’ Jewish community. In 2008, the raid by federal immigration officers on the Agriprocessors kosher meat-processing plant in Postville, Iowa, brought attention to numerous health, safety and labor violations that had been ongoing at what was then the country’s largest kosher slaughterhouse. In response, a group of Orthodox rabbis in Los Angeles attempted to launch an “ethical labor initiative,” called Peulat Sachir, a name drawn from the directions in Leviticus for the proper treatment of workers.

The program was very similar to Uri L’Tzedek’s Tav. The rabbis sought employers in the Jewish community — in businesses and nonprofits, as well as synagogues — who would sign a pledge to treat their workers fairly. In exchange, the rabbis would give the place of business a Peulat Sachir mark of distinction. 

But the program didn’t catch on.

“We got a few — a handful — of institutions on board,” said Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea, who helped spearhead the short-lived initiative. “But we couldn’t get beyond a handful.”

Kanefsky has since embraced the Tav initiative and is a member of Uri L’Tzedek’s Los Angeles rabbinic advisory board.

“The Tav HaYosher is the best thing that could have happened to Peulat Sachir,” he said.

Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, who was also involved in the effort to launch Peulat Sachir, said that even though that program didn’t gain broad traction, it did lead to some increased understanding of the importance of workers’ rights in the synagogues of the rabbis who backed the program.

“We undertook an independent review of the shuls,” Muskin said, that ultimately revealed the staffs were being compensated and treated lawfully.

Not so for some kosher-certified restaurants in Los Angeles.

“We’ve had some owners say to us, ‘Oh, yeah, we don’t meet those standards,’ ” Yanklowitz said of his organization’s work promoting the Tav.

Which is why, for Yanklowitz, Messinger’s decision to bring Bibi’s into compliance is particularly remarkable.

“When an owner changes their standards in order to get this seal — this is where a basic act like consumption becomes an act of social justice,” he said.

Yanklowitz said that the organization hopes to train a new group of volunteer compliance officers in the coming months, but in March, Yanklowitz himself interviewed the workers at Bibi’s.

Standing around a large commercial-grade mixer, he questioned Escobar — who on this day had spent the previous six hours baking hundreds of hamantashen for Purim, which was less than 48 hours away. Yanklowitz also interviewed two other employees, asking about the work conditions at the bakery.

“How often can you take a break?” he asked Escobar.

“He’s the backbone,” said Eric Melendez, another Bibi’s employee, translating for Escobar. “He takes breaks whenever he can.”

Not satisfied, Yanklowitz pressed on. “But on a typical day,” he asked Escobar, “will you take a break?”

Melendez translated the question, then relayed his co-worker’s response.

“It depends on the procedure that he’s doing,” Melendez said.

“And he’ll take a lunch break?” Yanklowitz asked.

“Yeah,” Melendez said. “He will.”