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SF Planning Commission to weigh alternatives to proposed ‘cafeteria ban’

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A Planning Commission report has proposed alternatives to a proposed ban on employee cafeterias often provided by tech companies like Square. Options include making cafeterias open to the public and requiring employers to provide employees with vouchers for local restaurants as well. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

A controversial ban on private cafeterias in office buildings could face significant changes due to concerns over its impact on cafeteria worker jobs.

The ordinance, introduced by Supervisor Ahsha Safai in July and co-sponsored by Supervisor Aaron Peskin, would amend San Francisco Planning Code to prohibit new “employee cafeterias within office space,” but would not apply retroactively to those already operating or approved by July 24. It is set to go before the Planning Commission on Thursday.

An analysis by The City’s Planning Department supports the spirit of the ordinance, which aims to force tech workers to contribute to the local economy and culture by patronizing nearby restaurants and businesses. However it raises concerns about impacts on cafeteria jobs and the failure to prohibit catering at tech offices.

SEE RELATED: Supervisors move to ban workplace cafeterias

Employee cafeteria workers “often enjoy better remuneration and working conditions than their counterparts in restaurants,” according to the Planning Department’s analysis, which states that cafeteria workers employed with the private sector have the potential to earn 30 percent higher wages than restaurant workers throughout The City.

They also often face more predictable work hours, which are “amenable to child rearing and family life,” per the analysis.

UNITE HERE Local 2, the union represents food service workers in San Francisco and throughout the Bay Area, officially opposes the ban on these grounds, and points out that cafeteria workers in tech offices are some of the few food service workers granted with an opportunity to unionize with a low risk of retaliation by their employers.

“While this opportunity isn’t afforded to every worker in every employee cafeteria – as it should be –the companies operating these cafeterias are much more likely to ensure a fair process for unionization than free-standing restaurants,” wrote Local 2 Research Director Ian Lewis in an email to the Planning Commission shared with the San Francisco Examiner.

In its current iteration, the ordinance does not prohibit employers from ordering catering services to office buildings. According to the Planning Department that could allow businesses to create “spaces that are just short of a full-service kitchen” to work around the prohibition.

Essentially, companies could still order daily catered lunches for their employees or continue serving snacks and limited food services in break rooms.

Safai confirmed that the proposed ordinance “does not intend to affect break rooms,” which are less likely to compete with local restaurants.

He added that a working group has been formed “with some of affected parties, including folks in tech,” to fine tune the legislation.

“We are asking them to think about, if they don’t have a full-service kitchen but a cafe, to think about looking at folks that are small business operators … and working with them to operate these facilities,” said Safai.

The Planning Department has recommended a list of alternatives to a full ban that would reduce the incentives for companies to create employee cafeterias, including allowing new office uses on the first floor of buildings and below, which is currently prohibited by zoning laws.

The department has also proposed allowing employee cafeterias on the first story so long as they are also accessible to the public, and establishing requirements for companies adding cafeterias to also provide meal vouchers to their employees to use at local restaurants — a practice that many tech companies have already committed to.

“If you talk about employees in this business they say, ‘We’d rather have the money so we have flexibility to choose — that’s one option,” said Safai. “Another is opening cafes to the public, so they aren’t isolated to employees. We are looking at all options — everything is still on the table at this point.”

Planning Commissioner Dennis Richards, a former executive at Salesforce, said that he understands the issues that the ban aims to address, but he would like to weigh out the “unintended consequences” of the ordinance

“When we first started we did not have a cafeteria in the building I was at and when I left we did have one…Going out became more of a treat, not an everyday occurrence,” said Richards.

Richards added that he would be in favor of an alternative that includes opening up a private cafe inside of office buildings to the public.

“It could go a long way — having a place where the public can still be served by folks who run the cafeteria, such as a take-out window,” he said.

Following Thursday’s hearing, the proposal will move before the Board of Supervisors’ Land Use Committee before being heard at the full board.

lwaxmann@sfexaminer.com

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