The Hypocrisy of Foodies: Restaurant Worker Abuse

We care more about how chickens and cows have been treated than we do about the people who cook and serve our food

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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.

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18 comments
allsoundfury
allsoundfury

The people here defying this article are selfish. The food service industry uses and abuses human beings. Buy your own damned food, make you own damned food, or shut the hell up. 

stu_rat_
stu_rat_

"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."

I take issue with that statement. Who is the "we" in that sentence? Perhaps 0.001% of the population? It’s like the author took a Portlandia skit as being truly representative of the populace.

I agree completely with the focus of this piece regarding restaurant workers. However, it's too bad she started off with an absurd, disconnected statement that isn't backed up by any facts. It's impossible to eat only cows, chickens, and pigs that grew up free and happy on mom and pop's farm. Those farms hardly even exist anymore. The vast majority of the meat eaten, even by a "foodie", is without any regard for the abused animal who lived a tormented life and died a gruesome death.

So, while the author's attempt at pointing out a hypocrisy sure sounded clever, I think it would be more accurate to say that "we" (as in, us as a society, or even "foodies") typically don't give any thought to either the treatment of animals or workers. Or better yet, she should focus on the plight of workers without showing her own bourgeois assumptions about people and food.

4:20
4:20

great article...i'm glad somebody still practices REAL journalism with a righteous cause! people with privilege and wealth (most of the people who read Time articles online i'm willing to wager) dont understand the restaurant business. Ive been working in the industry for almost 10 years and still i have to wash dishes and mop floors

slwp
slwp

I have worked as a waitress since I was 16; I am now 24 with my first baby on the way.  Being a waitress is not an ideal position in some circumstances:  my husband and I would like more time together and I would like more time off of my feet.  However, the complaint about $2.13/hour is insignificant, I believe.  Restaurant workers are paid $2.13/hour because we earn tips.  I make between $18 and $25/hr on average as a waitress at a national casual dining chain when adding my $2.13 and tips together, and this has helped me to pay for two Bachelor degrees earned simultaneously, a Master's degree which I am now earning, and a trip abroad this summer with my school that I have paid for all with my wages, incurring no student debt whatsoever.  However, most places do not even require a high school diploma to be a server, so tell me, where else can you earn that kind of money without a high school diploma?  The reason servers have reported earning $9.02/hour or less is often because they lie, as I can guarantee you that I have never met a server that reports 100% of their income.  I am sure they exist, but they are rare.  In addition, employers are required to make up for the lack of wages if, with $2.13/hr and tips, a server fails to make minimum wage for the hours worked.  So servers do not make under minimum wage.  Also, the fact that one server's wage should feed a family of four is nonsensical; it is a new world and a new age in which it is the standard and necessity for both parents to work, not just the one.  I have never assumed that my wage would be able to sustain myself, my husband, and our future children, and to assume so is simply ridiculous.  
As for working sick, I have never been required to work ill nor do I know anyone who has been required to.  Most servers I know work when they are ill because they want the money.  This does not mean that they do not earn good money in general.  But I can honestly tell you that most servers are not smart about how they spend their money.  There is a party culture within serving, especially within the younger crowd, in which drinking and yes, often minor drugs, are involved.  Many of my fellow servers will party all month and spend all of their cash, and then scramble at the end of the month for shifts, lamenting how little money they make and how difficult it is to pay the bills.    This is the life and culture of easy come, easy go cash.
In many states where servers are required to be paid minimum wage or higher, food prices in a restaurant may double.  I live in Texas, and comparing the prices with my national brand store as compared to where my manager came from in California, the prices were more than double, because servers earned $9/hour.  I am happy to earn my $2.13/hour and make tips, there is no job with such flexibility and such income possibility that I could have while working on a Master's degree full time.  
And lastly, it is entirely logical that restaurants are the third ranking cause of food-borne illness outbreaks.  Where else do you have so many people handling so much food?  This is basic common sense.   This is as if being surprised that bird flu outbreaks start on chicken farms.
Servers, in general, I find to be spoiled. They fail to realize that they can earn more in one 8-10 hour day than someone with a college degree in some entry level positions, without being required to have that education, be at work at 8 am, and wear a suit and tie.  Every industry has its downsides, but servers are not that bad off.  

msom
msom

I think the argument of this article is wrongheaded. The food movement, as far as I'm aware of it, is both pro-animal AND pro-human rights. The push for sustainably- and ethically-raised food benefits both livestock and the humans who eat meat. Growing plant foods without pesticides also benefits PEOPLE. For me, a large part of trying to eat local and ethically-raised food is about NOT buying food produced by huge companies like Monsanto, who treat their livestock AND their human workers like dirt. 

Food workers are NOT just the people who work in restaurants. 

The article is misconstruing the various efforts to change how Americans consume food as *only* a matter of how stuff tastes. I think lumping in "celebrity chefs" and big corporate "natural food" producers and retailer with many small-scale local restaurants, groceries, and farmers' markets is simplistic and irresponsible journalism. 

Finally, I'm completely in agreement that working conditions for restaurant staff need to be dramatically improved. Higher wages are a must. But the fact that this article has "hypocrisy" in the title implies that its an either/or question, that people who want locally-sourced food have chosen that *instead of* fair treatment of workers in the food service industry. 


editingwrite
editingwrite

What silliness. Restaurant workers are underpaid with respect to what? Higher-paying occupations? Can't this be said of all the lowest-paying jobs? The whole idea of the article is: egalitarianism good, market differentiation bad. Not a single instance of bad conduct is either elaborated or shown to be characteristic. A waiter works while afflicted with the flu. Why? Because he doesn't want to take the day off, because he was told he would be summarily fired if he did so, or what? Since there are jerko managers in every industry, is something about the restaurant industry that increases the ratio of jerko to decent managers?

BFoster
BFoster

That version of Top Chef would be just as fraught, maybe more so, with drama. I've worked as a server since I was 15 (now 41). Min. wage for servers was raised last while I was still in my teens. My husband and I now own/run our own tiny bakery/cafe in Albany, NY, and we pay our 2 part time employees closer to a living wage (we would prefer to pay them more, offer sick days, more hours and benefits - but we're just starting out and can't afford to take those steps yet - the costs are, for lack of a better word, whack). We intend to grow our business with the costs of taking care of our employees built-in, but it isn't easy to even make our tax payments now. We don't get the property or other tax breaks large businesses do, the employer taxes and insurance are taking a MUCH bigger chunk of our sales than we thought they would, and with just 4 people doing everything, it's a strain that plays out daily, on our bodies, bank account, family and employees.

I'd like to see tax breaks for very small businesses, with a greater pay-out on a sliding scale for employers paying closer to a living wage. Although reducing our labor costs would save us the most money, we refuse to budge on pay and are getting new business so that we can better support everyone (even though that adds to the strain; the hot water bottle and freezer packs are our friends). We absolutely care about our employees' welfare at and away from work, and we don't pay ourselves more than we do them (actually way less per hour considering we put in way more hours per week). Very small business owners, constantly referred to as "The Backbone of Our Economy", are not being supported by government initiatives like the big guys, even though we represent 91% of the economy. 

Restaurant workers have it rough - more often than not, I had to work a day job and wait tables at night so that I would have insurance and enough money to live on. $2.13 an hour is a JOKE in extremely poor taste made over and over again, year after year. It's abominable that a huge number of people are forced to live in poverty and/or with government assistance while CEOs salaries skyrocket. The people at the top must take responsibility for everyone we employ. We are, after all, responsible for employees' livelihoods, just as our livelihood depends on them. 

Ms. Jayaraman, I can't wait to read your book. If you need chefs and restaurant owners for press opportunities, we'd be happy to oblige. This is an issue we care deeply about (my husband has also worked in restaurants all of his life - neither of us have gone to culinary school. Working in restaurants was our training). We recently appeared on several local news stations speaking up for raising the NY and federal minimum wage for restaurant and all workers. We have lived the life, and now we're the owners. We know what it was like to try to scrape by on nothing for long periods of time (and we still do). We'll continue to actively support raising wages and quality of life for all restaurant workers. We hope you'll visit our website and contact us through www.allgoodbakers.weebly.com

Eosapien
Eosapien

There's no hypocrisy. What's wrong with speaking for those who can't speak for themselves?

InVinoVeritasBC
InVinoVeritasBC

Because they don't see the worker as a fellow human being. It's unfairly assumed that hospitality workers are less intelligent, that this is the only work they could get, so therefore aren't worthy of the respect we all deserve simply for being HUMAN. It's disgusting. I LOVE my restaurant worker friends. I went to school for hospitality. It's a great industry, but one in which folks are sorely underpaid, which is why I had to leave :(

MadmanDefarge
MadmanDefarge

"I aimed at the public's heart and by accident hit its stomach."

allsoundfury
allsoundfury

P.S. if you reply to me I don't give a damn. I'm not here to listen. 

EdwardJ.Belanger
EdwardJ.Belanger

@stu_rat_ the author spent ONE sentence on that statement and spent the REST of the article explaining the plight of the workers. YOU*, on the other hand, Devoted three paragraphs to providing for a disconnect to the premise of the article in order to address that ONE sentence. Yet you ONLY used Two sentences to address the unfairness of Restaurant workers' low wages. this is MORE telling about YOU than about the plight of the workers. Shoot the messenger rather than address the subject of the message.

garoud
garoud

@slwp Astroturf!! come get your astroturf!! lookis justlike the real thing!! Astroturf!!

BenderRodriguez
BenderRodriguez

@msom  

I think you've turned it into a false dichotomy. It can be for both human health AND disregarding that a lot of restaurant people would never be able to afford to eat at such a place themselves.

EAta
EAta

"A waiter works while afflicted with the flu. Why? Because he doesn't want to take the day off, because he was told he would be summarily fired if he did so, or what? Since there are jerko managers in every industry, is something about the restaurant industry that increases the ratio of jerko to decent managers?"

- A waiter/cook works afflicted with the flu because he or she will not be given a paid sick day. They sacrifice their own well-being and maybe even put others at risk because they need the money. 

- There is, indeed, something that increases the ratio of horrible managers, and that is, the unsustainable nature of many restaurants. The time-crunch, which exists due to the nature of food-service and the perishable nature of the product, is one facet. High operating costs, relative to other small businesses, for example, may be another. Trying to accomplish too much with too little, and spreading thin the resources is yet another. There are many finer details to all of these aspects. Consider that even tiny establishments in big cities, where competition abounds and rents are high, require wealthy investors just to get their doors open. There is so much (money, time, skill) that goes into your lunchtime snack. 

I think the restaurant model as a whole needs to be reconsidered and simplified. 

I am a skilled, intelligent worker. I have empathy for those in the industry who are driven by passion, respect for the skill and labor of cooking, and their own ambitions. But our fervor doesn't compensate for rampant unfairness. I want to do things differently, or not at all.


BFoster
BFoster

Sorry, kinda went on an owner and lifelong restaurant worker there. We are publicizing our support of raising the wage in the hopes that our customers and potential customers will recognize that a large portion of their dollars spent with us is going towards our employees. We hope that raising awareness with gentle education about supporting a fully sustainable business (on multiple platforms) will result in more business, and other local businesses following suit. Our customers need to know that not everybody does right by their employees (back of house gossip is free flowing and travels fast), but we are making a concerted effort to do so.  We don't publicize for publicity's sake, we've been in the trenches. We want to help effect change. As Chef Colicchio said, it's just the right thing to do. Educating guests is a huge element that has been missing. This book is going to blow that missing link out of the water. 

stu_rat_
stu_rat_

@EdwardJ.Belanger Is it not acceptable to take issue with one misguided statement in an otherwise well-meaning piece? True it was one sentence, but that sentence was also the tag line or subheading of the article everywhere it appeared (the Time homepage, social media, etc.). So, while I get your point, I think the editors thought that sentence was more important. Even the title is "the Hypocrisy of Foodies...". What hypocrisy would that be? Oh yes, that would be the hypocrisy stated in that one sentence. I think we could better discuss the unfair wages of restaurant workers without making it out to be some type of hypocrisy where people care more about animals. That's my opinion. Just like it's MY opinion that YOU can make a better point WITHOUT using words in ALL CAPS. It sounds like YOU are YELLING!

EAta
EAta

To add to the reasoning behind working ill: the nature of kitchen work is that the work NEEDS to be done. It cannot be left on the table for the next day, or the next person. There may not be someone who's available to do your work. Even if there is, it is a very last resort for a cook to want a coworker to cover for them on their (perhaps only) day off. Systems are not in place for a restaurant to work any differently. A restaurateur will find a way to work his or her kitchen even when the power goes out, because shutting down for a night is not an option. Just trying to begin to draw an outline of why things are the way they are in this industry.