Our growing, conscientious food culture has put a priority on eating all things sustainable, local, organic and free-range. Though most foodies would never step foot in a McDonald’s, they would happily eat at a farm-to-table restaurant where food is sourced according to the highest standards.
And yet, here’s the unspoken hypocrisy. We give more thought to how the chickens and cows on our plate have been treated than we do about the people who cook and serve our food. Restaurant workers hold six of the 10 lowest-paying occupations in the U.S., earning less, on average, than farm workers and domestic workers. Just 20% of restaurant jobs pay a living wage, and women, people of color and immigrants are often barred from getting these living-wage positions.
It is “the chasm between American food values and business practices,” writes Saru Jayaraman, founder of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and author of the new book Behind the Kitchen Door.
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The restaurant industry can’t blame the recession: it’s one of the largest and fastest-growing sectors of the U.S. economy, with annual job-growth rate of 3.4% in 2012, double the growth rate of overall U.S. employment. At the same time, the federal minimum wage for tipped workers has remained at $2.13 an hour for more than 20 years. In 2010, the median wage for restaurant workers was $9.02 an hour, including tips, which amounts to a wage below the federal poverty line for a family of four.
Jayaraman cites examples of rampant exploitation and discrimination. Light-skinned employees are regularly hired and promoted above darker-skinned employees, even when the latter may have more experience and knowledge of the menu and serving customers. Abusive labor practices also prevent restaurant workers from benefits such as sick days, which subsequently poses a serious public-health threat. In 2011, the CDC reported that almost 12% of restaurant workers said that they worked while suffering from flu symptoms, vomiting, or diarrhea on two or more shifts in the last year. Not surprisingly, the CDC also cited restaurants as the third most frequent setting for outbreaks of foodborne illness (after cruise ships and long-term care facilities).
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Jayaraman puts the onus on the public, the government and the newly formed organization RAISE (Restaurants Advancing Industry Standards in Employment) to raise awareness of these labor issues. “The regular National Restaurant Association represents the voice of big business and not the voice of the employees,” Jayaraman says. “I’ve received hundreds of emails from restaurant owners, Washington lobbyists and people all over the country saying we didn’t know this and we’re outraged.” But in an industry that has become so high-profile, one also wonders why more celebrity chefs aren’t as outspoken about improving these conditions as they are about protecting the nation’s palate. Jayaraman has cited Tom Colicchio, who pays sick days and overtime, encourages promotion and offers English classes to workers, as an exemplary employer for the industry. Colicchio operates 25 restaurants across four states in the Craft and ‘Wichcraft groups and is ultimately responsible for some 400 employees, but that’s only a fraction of the 13 million restaurant workers in the United States.
“I don’t pay my workers a fair rate for press,” Colicchio says. “We treat our staff fairly because it’s the right thing to do.” Perhaps we need a new kind of reality TV cook-off: Top Chef, the Fair Labor Edition.