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Raising the Profile of Restaurant Workers in the Fight for Food Justice

Food activists are clearly invested in ensuring that farm animals aren’t exploited in the production of food. We’ve joined hands with animal rights activists to fight Ag Gag bills and raise awareness of CAFOs, and the pressure we’ve put on restaurants is starting to show as cage-free eggs and pasture-raised meats are increasingly found on their menus. However, the humans involved are too often left out of the conversation. Farm worker issues are occasionally brought to light, but not nearly often enough. Restaurant workers get even less attention. 

Those who favor the status quo are coordinating their efforts to ensure that exploitation continues throughout the food system and beyond. One clear example is everyone’s favorite bill-writing entity, the American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC. This group was recently revealed to be behind proposed Ag Gag legislation, as well as bills in over a dozen states that would preempt local municipalities from passing laws requiring paid sick leave for workers. They also openly promote legislation on their Web site that would preempt passage of local living wage ordinances.

Food chain workers would be among those heavily affected by legislation on these latter two issues. These workers account for seven out of the 10 lowest-paying jobs in America, six of which are in restaurants. This is due, in part, to the meager–but legal–minimum wage of just $2.13 per hour for tipped workers. In addition, restaurant workers are particularly likely to be denied paid sick days.

Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United), an organization that advocates improved working conditions and wages for restaurant workers, released a report  in early July based on over 200 surveys and focus groups conducted with mothers working in restaurants. (We’ve written before about the important work that ROC-United does here.) In their new report, they found that just nine percent of workers are guaranteed paid sick days by their employers.

The ROC-United report focuses on mothers in restaurants because of their unique vulnerabilities in the workplace, and because, at two million strong, they represent such a significant proportion of the U.S. workforce. Mothers are already at a disadvantage due to the well-documented gender pay gap, but another aspect that’s rarely explored is their needs around childcare.

Moms working in restaurants are in a serious bind in this regard; inadequate childcare can limit their earning potential and career mobility, while affordability is one of the biggest barriers to finding care in the first place. Mothers also face significant difficulty in finding providers that cover evening and weekend hours and that are flexible around the erratic, last minute scheduling practices restaurants often have. Lack of paid sick days to care for themselves or their children is another significant compounding factor for these moms.

Sandra, one of the women interviewed in the study, has faced numerous issues around childcare. Most childcare centers charge far more than she can afford, and when she applied for assistance through a government program, she was told the wait would be about a year. Eventually, she found a church that offered more affordable care, but this option was not without compromise. The daycare center serves sugary snacks, teaches the children about religious topics, and offers limited hours of care. The latter is particularly problematic since it prevents Sandra from working in the evening, the best time for tips.

Sandra also lacks paid sick days, and has faced backlash when she’s had to cancel a shift. When she stayed home one day to care for her sick daughter, her manager forced her to take several additional days off, including the entire weekend. “I lost those hours, the tips, everything,” she said.  “And it’s hard because when your daughter is sick you have to pay for the medicine. It’s when you need more money.”

Indeed, for low-wage workers, a few shifts can make all the difference in being able to care for their families. According to a report by the Economic Policy Institute, missing just 3.5 days of work can mean losing a month’s budget for groceries. Through some irony, the same individuals who prepare and bring food to our tables struggle to feed themselves and their children.

The unfortunate truth is that Sandra’s story is far from unusual. The combination of low wages, shrinking childcare subsidies, and limited availability of affordable childcare makes it difficult for mothers working in restaurants to provide for their families. Though it certainly won’t solve the problem in its entirety, one simple and crucial step to easing this crisis is to raise the minimum wage.

Millions of parents would have increased access to childcare, and all low-wage workers would be better able to meet their basic needs, including nutritious and sustainable foods. One way to advocate for this much-needed change is to join The Welcome Table, a joint project of several food worker justice organizations including ROC-United. We should also support restaurants that take the high road to profitability and treat their workers fairly. ROC-United’s Diner’s Guide includes a list of “High Road” employers as well as tools to encourage our favorite restaurants to implement fair wages and practices.

The food justice movement is making strides in many aspects of ethical food, but it’s time to broaden our efforts and give equal priority to the workers that bring this food to our tables. A sustainable food system must be built on sustainable labor practices.

Photo: Restaurant worker Angela Piril, by Dina Cendano for the ROC-NY Gender Committee Photo Exhibit.

5 thoughts on “Raising the Profile of Restaurant Workers in the Fight for Food Justice

  1. Good article. Another group of workers under-compensated are those who work at Wal*Mart. When Washington, D.C. tried to force Wal*Mart to pay a living wage of $12 per hour, Wal*Mart threatened not to build three planned stores in the District. Nice guys those Walton’s . . .

  2. I agree! Retail workers are in a very similar boat as restaurant workers. That’s part of why raising the minimum wage for all workers would be helpful. Granted, it needs to go higher than the $10 or that is typically discussed, but it’s a start.

  3. While it is true that people in this line of work are paid low wages, pressing on small business owners may not be the issue, and if we are talking about “the restaurant industry” we are generally not talking about some big bad corporate greed monster. The average food business spends 40% of its revenue on staffing, 35% on ingredients, and 21% on overhead, leaving around 4% of revenue as profit. These businesses are hardly ever overstaffed, so it stands to reason that the best way to get folks in the industry paid better, is to get people to pay more for what they eat. As a country, we spend less on food as a percentage of our income than any other country in the world. In 1963 we spent roughly 33% of our income on what we ate, today that number is 6%. It was once true that restaurants were for special occasions, now it is often cheaper to eat out than it is to cook. We need to stop and say that value isn’t everything, that quality matters, and that we are actually willing to do something about these wages that we rightfully find paltry. How do we expect to increase salaries through litigation while still paying a dollar for a sandwich?

  4. Why would you even bring Walmart into this? Why should Walmart only pay $12/hr and all their competition pay minimum wage? There is no logic to that.

  5. Harmenio, I personally think that a small increase in restaurant food prices is a necessary step. The great news is that it would be small — a recent economic study found that if we raised the minimum wage to $9.80 and the tipped minimum wage to $6.86, AND restaurants passed on 100% of the additional costs to consumers, it would result in just a 2% increase in restaurant meal prices, or about a dime a day for an average household (See http://rocunited.org/dime-a-day/). As you point out, people in the US spend a tiny percentage of our income on food – the lowest of any country in the world that keeps track of this data (See http://civileats.com/2011/03/29/mapping-global-food-spending-infographic/); it seems like it’s time to raise that percentage just a bit, considering the positive impact it would have on workers.