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The Dunkin' Lawsuit Over Undocumented Workers Ignores a Basic Reality of the Food Service Industry

Restaurants rely heavily on foreign-born workers, and that's unlikely to change.
A Dunkin' employee places a fresh tray of doughnuts on the shelf in New York City.

Dunkin' analyzed company records and found that undocumented workers were employed at some franchises.

Dunkin', the coffee chain formerly known as Dunkin' Donuts, is suing nine franchisees in Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts for not verifying whether their employees had work authorizations, in violation of federal law.

As reported by Restaurant Business, the company analyzed employment and tax records between January of 2017 and October of 2018 and found "no employment documentation or incomplete documentation for a substantial portion of the employees' files."

Following the review, which concluded that franchisees failed to use E-verify—a program that allows employers to confirm employees' eligibility to work in the United States—Dunkin' proceeded to terminate the franchise agreements and took the stores' owners to court.

This isn't the first time in recent months that Dunkin' has gone after franchisees for hiring undocumented workers: According to The New Food Economy, similar complaints were filed in September of 2018 and April of this year. But this latest round could be interpreted as a response to President Donald Trump's looming promise to start mass ICE immigration raids.

Whatever the motivation, the company's approach seems to turn a blind eye to one reality of the food industry in the U.S.: The industry relies heavily on immigrants and, often, undocumented workers. Even Dunkin's chief executive officer himself recently acknowledged the importance of hiring foreign-born workers, saying in an interview with Bloomberg that the "tight labor market and staffing has been an issue in the industry for a while."

Undocumented workers already are overrepresented in the leisure and hospitality industry, according to data from the Pew Research Center. They make up more than 10 percent of the workforce in areas like food preparation, construction, and maintenance or cleaning.

Other trends indicate this is unlikely to change. In 2017, an analysis by the National Restaurant Association based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics pointed toward a decline in labor force participation among 16- to 24-year-olds and its impact on the restaurant industry, which has the youngest workforce out of any sector in the economy.

As a result, chief economist Bruce Grindy concluded, "foreign-born employees will be increasingly important to the restaurant industry's ability to expand and create jobs in the years ahead."