Behind the Kitchen Door: Standing Up for Restaurant Workers

By Saru Jayaraman

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Photo courtesy of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United

With over 10 million workers, the restaurant industry is one of the largest and fastest growing segments of the U.S. economy. It also is the worst employer in America, offering six of the 10 lowest paying jobs in the country.

Nationwide, the average restaurant worker earns just $15,000 a year and receives no benefits or sick days. The federal minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13 an hour. Even though restaurants are supposed to ensure that workers take home at least $7.25 an hour (the federal minimum wage), many do not. Worse still, in one survey, about one in three restaurant workers reported being victims of wage theft by their employers during the week prior to the survey. Today, millions of food service workers are collecting $0 paychecks and living off tips. Servers are hit especially hard, as evidenced by their reliance on food stamps at twice the rate of workers in other industries.

The restaurant industry is the single largest employer of people of color in America and the second largest employer of immigrants.

The restaurant industry is the single largest employer of people of color in America and the second largest employer of immigrants. The industry is rife with discrimination, inequality and structural barriers to promotions and higher wages. Workers of color and immigrants disproportionately fill the industry’s lowest paying positions. Women, who make up 70 percent of servers, are four times more likely as men to face sexual harassment on the job.

This is an incredibly dismal picture for restaurant workers nationwide. But, California must be different, right? After all, California has strong progressive institutions and elected leaders and has been politically as blue as the Pacific Ocean. We would think California’s restaurant workers must be better off.

Not exactly. California has the largest restaurant industry of any state in the nation and is home to the city with the largest restaurant industry in the country—Los Angeles. Although California is one of a handful of states that have eliminated the subminimum wage for tipped workers, restaurant workers still face poverty-level wages. In 2011, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United conducted a study of the restaurant industry in Los Angeles (see more here) —not only one of the culinary hubs of California and arguably the nation, but also the country’s fourth most expensive city to live in. We found that the median wage for Los Angeles restaurant workers is just $9.24 an hour. Only 18 percent of restaurant workers earn a livable wage for the city. The vast majority does not.

What’s worse, those wages are impacted by race and racial discrimination. White workers disproportionately held the higher paying restaurant jobs, compared with workers of color. And U.S.-born citizens held higher paying jobs than immigrant workers, including those who have documented status. On average, U.S.-born restaurant workers in Los Angeles were making $12.91 per hour, while immigrant workers were making $9.50 an hour.

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Photo courtesy of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United.

One woman who has been a server for five years describes a typical scene at her restaurant: “Most of the servers are white, bussers and runners are Hispanic. Same as the cooks, except for the chef, who’s white. Bartenders are mixed Hispanic and white. Hosts are white. Management is all white. Once, one of the backup servers wanted to do the serving on the main floor. Even though he knows the restaurant well, they just ignored him. A white person came in, and was instantly offered the job.”

This is just one anecdotal look at discrimination that translates into significant wage discrepancies.

In addition, our study found that over 44 percent of all restaurant workers in Los Angeles experienced overtime violations, and 89 percent of restaurant workers in Los Angeles did not receive paid sick days. Lack of paid sick days for restaurant workers should be treated as a major public health concern. Without the option of paid time off, employees come to work sick and, in turn, put customers’ health in jeopardy. That’s not a trivial threat. One in six Americans becomes ill from a food-borne illness every year. When those instances can be traced to a single cause, in more than half the cases, the illness was contracted from a restaurant. Research shows that between 48 percent and 93 percent of all food-borne norovirus outbreaks can be traced to sick food service workers.

With the largest restaurant industry in the U.S., Los Angeles is poised to lead the nation toward more just and sustainable labor practices. Indeed, there are restaurants throughout California that have done just that—from the pioneering Cosecha in Oakland, to the Good Girl Dinette in Los Angeles and others highlighted in our annual National Diner’s Guide.

Still, encouraging the rest of the industry to change their practices will require a groundswell of public support. What can we do to help the workers who cook, prepare and serve our meals? We need to pass state, local and federal laws requiring the restaurant industry to provide paid sick days; demand that the separate subminimum wage for tipped workers be eliminated at the federal level; and incite a sweeping culture change across the industry by speaking up in favor of living wages and sustainable labor practices every time we dine out.

California helped lead the national movement for organic produce. California also helped lead the farm-to-table local food trend. California also must lead on justice for restaurant workers.