Restaurant Industry Workers Speak Out

By Abigail Twenter, NOW Public Policy Intern

This post follows The Real Cost of Your Next Meal

A new book, Behind the Kitchen Door by Saru Jayaraman, is a revealing account of the restaurant industry seen through the eyes of its workers. One of the largest private employment sectors, this growing industry employs more than 10 million workers, many of whom struggle to make ends meet.

One big reason is that the federal minimum wage for tipped wage workers has been kept at a shockingly low $2.13 an hour for the past 21 years. The book reveals that restaurant owners and managers often withhold tips from wait staff, fail to pay overtime and rarely provide benefits such as health insurance and sick leave. Additionally, nearly 40 percent of all Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sexual harassment charges in 2011 came from the restaurant industry.

It’s obvious that this industry demands fundamental reform, and my own experiences illustrate many of the practices that must be stopped. Here’s my story…

I started working in the restaurant industry as a junior in college. With money running low, I decided to try bartending at a local college bar. As part of my interview, I was sent into the manager’s office. Nervous, I started to sit down, preparing to be bombarded with questions. The manager told me to stop before sitting, and his eyes followed my figure from top to bottom. I was appalled, but remembered the shortage of jobs in the area as well as the shortage of money in my bank account. The manager told me that working at his bar was a coveted job in the community. He asked very little about my employment history and availability, but did instruct me to be a “good girl” and keep my nails and hair done. I left extremely disgusted, but felt I could tough it out until graduation.

As I started working a regular shift, I called a few of the other female bartenders to ask them about their experiences and was shocked at how similar they were. One young woman was even asked to twirl around before he hired her. Many women came in and were asked to leave because they “didn’t have the right look.” Male bartenders did not have such problems. They were allowed to work the night shift, while women could only work during the day, making far less money. If I was not able to find a female bartender to cover my shift and I asked a male, I was threatened with being fired. On several occasions, I was told I was dressing “too conservative” and that only an elite few could have my job because he “only hired the prettiest.”

Nothing disturbed me more than the indifferent acceptance of these conditions by both the staff and the community. Sure, every once in a while a female staffer would voice frustration or a patron would shake their head in disgust with the sexual harassment by the owner, but nothing changed.

Looking back, I wish I had cut back on expenses, rather than continue working under such appalling conditions. The psychological harm continues to affect me after graduation. I am disappointed that I did not speak up and that, in effect, I legitimized the way I was treated. And sometimes I subconsciously find myself placing value on things that were previously unimportant to me. While I consider myself a strong feminist, I sometimes still question the way I look and wonder whether my appearance meets external expectations.

Seeing firsthand such rampant discrimination in the workplace dismissed my previous notion that we have attained equality. We have a long way to go, and while I cannot change the silent compliance of my days at that college bar, I will use these experiences to ensure that I never allow myself to become a submissive representative of a culture that embraces such exploitative and abusive practices.

Still, in order to reform an industry characterized by widespread discrimination and occupational segregation based on race and sex, a yawning gender wage gap, wage theft, sexual harassment and unhealthy working conditions, workers and the dining public must demand change.

The Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC-United) has launched a national campaign, which includes a Diners’ Guide to Ethical Eating. This guide provides information on the wages, benefits, and promotion practices of the 150 most popular restaurants in nine major U.S. cities. They also provide a free mobile app.

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) has introduced a bill, the WAGES Act (H.R. 650), which would gradually raise the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers up to 70 percent of the federal minimum wage within two years. Jayaraman notes that if we raise the tipped minimum wage from $2.13 to just above $5.00, wages would be raised for almost one million women, increasing the wage floor for another four million women and cutting the pay gap by one-fifth. Adoption of Edwards’ legislation would go a long way toward reducing poverty — especially among women and workers of color. Congress should pass this bill immediately.

More details can be found at Restaurant Opportunities Center United

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