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.