Photo via Flickr user JC Olivera
Welcome back to Restaurant Confessionals, where we talk to the unheard voices of the restaurant industry from both the front-of-house (FOH) and back-of-house (BOH) about what really goes on behind the scenes at your favorite establishments. In this installment, a restaurant owner in Los Angeles tells us about how he makes sure that his employees get on the payroll—even if they don't have a social security number, an ID, or a green card.
I first started noticing—well, I knew for certain—that these people that were working for me weren't the most legal of workers.The first time I heard about a way to get around the fact that they don't have socials was at [restaurant name redacted]. I got a notice in the mail from the IRS that I had to garnish someone's wages, and it was someone I'd never heard of, but apparently he was working for me. Clearly, this dude was using someone else's name and social security number.So I approached him about it. He said, "OK, well, I'll just go and get another number." Confused, I asked, "How does that work—how do you just get another one?" He said, "Don't worry about it, I'll have another next time I see you, by tomorrow."Then there was this process of me having to fire this person, and then rehire that same person under a new name and social. I hired, let's say, "John Smith," fired John Smith, and then hired Jack Smith, who used go by John. There are loopholes. My guy is having to have his wages garnished because of that number he used—somewhere, some real guy named John Smith didn't pay his taxes or whatever the fuck, so now, my employee has his wages fucked with because of the social he's using that isn't really his.This had happened probably five or six times with me. As I got kind of savvy to it, I started to learn about how it all goes down, and where.You go to Sixth and Alvarado downtown and look for the guys who do passport photos. They pretty much have the hook-up, and it just depends on what you want. A $50 ID card, or a $300 ID card? The quality varies depending on how much you're willing to pay.
After a couple of years of doing this, people I would hire would come up to me and say, you know, I don't have my papers, and I'd tell 'em, "Yeah, that's fine, just head on down to Sixth and Alvarado and get some fake ones and then I can put you in the books." But this one time, there was a kid who was just starting to work for me—a super nice guy, young, perfect English, but he didn't have his social or a green card or ID—so I told him what I tell everyone: just go downtown, buy one, and we will hire you. But he had no idea what I was talking about, and had no family, friends, or connections here.
This became the first time I actually physically went downtown and dragged this bright-eyed, bushy-tailed kid with me to get his papers. It was like, "Alright kid—the first thing you're gonna have to do in the States is some illicit, illegal shit in order to get a job," which is the most ass-backwards way of looking at things. You know, to succeed in this country you're gonna have to do something terribly illegal first, like steal someone's identity, and then you can probably start your American dream! He was kinda traumatized by the whole thing. He didn't know if this is what he should be doing—he wanted to do everything legally and start from scratch, but it was not possible for him in the time he needed it done. I was like, "Look dude, I hear you, but everyone does it this way, and I can't hire you without a social. I can't pay you under the table in cash. You need to get a paycheck, and in case we as a business get audited, it looks legit."
What if I wanted a new identity, and a handgun and stash of money in a safe somewhere in case this whole restaurant thing goes south, and I wanna start a new life somewhere? You know, you can just buy a whole new identity.
So, we go down there, and he's getting his picture taken and he's all nervous, but at the end of it he walks out with (in air quotes) a "completely legitimate" green card, social security card, ID, all that shit and I'm looking around, like, should I get a passport for myself? What if I wanted a new identity, and a handgun and stash of money in a safe somewhere in case this whole restaurant thing goes south, and I wanna start a new life somewhere? You know, you can just buy a whole new identity down at Sixth and Alvarado, and just peace the fuck out. It's crazy that it's completely out in the open too, they yell it down the street, no one gives a shit. It's just that common.And he's an amazing employee, I love that kid.I probably put myself in some kind of risky business by actually going downtown, had there been some kind of a raid, or police activity, and I was caught trying to scam the IRS by helping out a guy who wants make a living. But that being said, this goes down every day, hundreds of times of a day. I've had to fire and rehire the same guy at least ten times in the past few years—it's just that common.Every single restaurant I know of, at least in Los Angeles, is doing this. It's so easy to do. If you wanna work for any of those big name-restaurants, you have to have an ID, you have to have some kind of paperwork and a social. It doesn't have to be a good one. I've seen some terrible ones, but by the same token, if I was to ever get interrogated, I'm by no means a professional ID checker. I don't work for the DMV! I just play dumb.The fakes that get labeled by the government as a person whose wages needed to be garnished, those go right in the shredder. But we copy the fakes and have them on hand, just as you would the real ones. We have a pretty extensive paperwork process, so, you're running that fake social security number like 80 times, and signing with a fake name however many times just to be able to show up to work the first day. You have to change your actual name, like "Jose Velasquez" is now "Jose Del Cid," or what have you.It's nuts, but it's become so normal, especially in this industry. It's a broken system and a dumb work around. But good people come here to work hard, and to be a part of this team, and to provide for themselves and their families. Who am I to not pass the word along about Sixth and Alvarado?As told to Greer GlassmanThis article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in June 2015.