Restaurant Workers: The Missing Conversation on Food Justice

by Lara Goodrich Ezor

This past August, fast-food workers in cities across the country made national news by going on strike. Partnered with labor and faith-based organizations, they demanded an increase in their wages, from the federal minimum of $7.25 to $15 per hour. Restaurants in St. Louis, Detroit and Milwaukee were forced to close during the pre-Labor Day strikes. While little seems to have changed for fast-food workers since, the strikes laid grounds for a debate on the state of restaurant labor in the United States, a conversation that has largely been absent from the “sustainable food” and “food justice” movements.

According to the Economic Research Service of the USDA, nearly half of Americans eat out at least once per week, yet we often take these food establishments and their workers for granted. In her recent book Behind the Kitchen Door (2013), Saru Jayaraman details the systematic injustices and daily struggles of restaurant workers in America. Jayaraman co-founded the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC), a group that works with restaurant workers to improve wages and conditions in worksites across the country. ROC focuses on three principle areas in need of change – first, stagnated, low wages; second, discriminatory practices; and, third, the lack of paid sick days for restaurant workers. Without changes to the current practices, they argue, the industry creates an unsustainable and unjust status quo, one that exploits millions of workers to keep food prices and overhead costs as low as possible.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, seven out of ten of the lowest-paid jobs in the United States are in the food industry, and the median hourly wage for food service workers is $8.89. Through tips, some restaurant workers make substantially more, while others earn far less, and their income varies daily – some days are slow, some are busy; some days customers leave big tips, and on others, they don’t. Without sufficient, reliable incomes, tipped and minimum-wage restaurant employees are forced to work long hours, rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and/or work multiple jobs to support themselves and their families.

In 2007, after twenty years without an increase, the federal minimum wage was raised from $5.15 to $7.25 per hour. However, the tipped minimum wage has not budged since 1991, and remains at $2.13 per hour.

In March 2013, the Fair Minimum Wage Act was introduced, which would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour by 2015 (and sets it to increase thereafter, in proportion to inflation), as well as raise the tipped minimum wage from its current rate of $2.13 per hour to 70% of the federal minimum wage rate. Proponents (including President Obama, who called for a raise in the federal minimum wage during his State of the Union address on January 29) argue that increasing these wages will provide a livable income for hard-working Americans, who have struggled through the recession without a pay raise. Opponents argue: employers are already under intense pressure to keep food prices low for consumers; restaurant jobs offer great opportunities for advancement; and an increase in the minimum wage for restaurant workers would be disastrous for an industry struggling in the wake of the recession.

Problems with current wages go further; reports of stolen tips and withheld paychecks are rampant within the industry. And when customers “dine and dash,” low-wage restaurant workers are left without tips, or worse, must take a pay cut to cover the cost of the stolen meal. These frequently reported situations only compound the problem of low and stagnated wages within the industry.

In addition to concerns over stagnated wages, proponents of improved conditions for restaurant workers highlight the racial and gender divides apparent within the industry. Currently, white restaurant workers make an average of $3.71 more than workers of color, with workers of color far more likely to earn less than the minimum wage. Restaurants are often highly segregated; “back-of-the-house” positions (e.g. dishwashers or runners) are more likely to be filled by minority workers, while “front-of-the-house” jobs (e.g. hostesses and servers) are often dominated by whites. Reports of limited opportunities for advancement for minority workers and women, coupled with commonplace verbal abuse and sexual harassment accusations, have further ignited the drive for far-reaching changes that advocates hope to see within the industry.

Finally, the lack of paid sick days for most restaurant workers has raised concerns over both worker welfare and food safety. Restaurant employees are often forced to choose between forgoing their income or working while sick. And sometimes the choice is even starker – work while sick or else lose their jobs, as many workers are often ordered by employers to work in spite of health concerns. This creates an environment in which workers are inclined to disregard their health, while simultaneously putting the health of others at stake. Advocates for improved working conditions in restaurants insist that paid sick days are crucial for the health and welfare of workers and customers.  According to Jayaraman (2013), “Consumers have to consider the health and well-being of the people who actually touch their food before they put it in their mouths.”

Those who advocate on behalf of restaurant workers concede that employers in the industry face an uphill battle – between trying to turn a profit, staying in business, supporting their workers, and building a customer base, they must also keep prices reasonably low. However, advocates insist that disregarding the hands that feed us – the restaurant workers – in the interest of keeping prices low for consumers does not create a more just food system.  They claim that consumers cannot continue to overlook the plight of so many workers who play an integral role in putting food on our tables. They argue that consumers should – and ultimately will – be willing to shoulder a slightly higher price for increased worker welfare and improved working conditions.

Here at Friedman, we talk a lot about sustainability and improving the conditions in which our food is produced, processed, transported and prepared. While the issue of workers’ rights features prominently in our discussions of creating a more just food system, it is easy to overlook many of the workers throughout the supply chain.

We cannot continue to overlook the many sets of hands that feed us, from the line cooks to the dishwashers, the runners to the waiters. Fair conditions for restaurant workers are crucial to creating a more just and sustainable food system.

Lara Goodrich Ezor is a first-year FPAN student who learned to cook at her first restaurant job, and learned not to take herself too seriously while managing a comedy club/restaurant. She loves preparing food in the tiny kitchen of her Somerville apartment. Read more about her at our Meet Our Writers page.

The Friedman Sprout is a monthly student run newspaper that aims to serve the student population at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, prospective students, and alumni. Our mission is to report on newsworthy information that affects the Friedman community including nutrition research, food policy, internship and volunteer opportunities, as well as school events. Our editorial slant is that of sustainability in food and nutrition.

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