The Real Cost of Your Next Meal

More than half of the people in the United States eat out at a restaurant once per week and 20 percent eat out two or more times a week. Before ordering their next meal, there are a few things restaurant-goers should know.

A 2012 report by the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United highlights the startling pay inequities within the industry — disparities that disproportionately affect women restaurant workers. In 2010, seven of the 10 lowest-paid occupations were in the restaurant industry.

One of these positions is that of the server. Servers in general experience three times the poverty rate of the workforce as a whole and rely on food stamps at nearly double the rate of the general population. Women comprise 71 percent of servers, yet a year-round, full-time female server is paid just 68 percent of what her male counterpart is paid ($17,000 vs. $25,000). The numbers are worse for women of color. African American women servers are paid only 60 percent of what male servers overall are paid. This pay inequity costs a black woman $400,000 over the course of her lifetime.

Women in low-income restaurant jobs are victims of a particularly pernicious form of discrimination; women restaurant workers are found in the lowest-paying restaurant jobs, and the subminimum wage these positions are paid is sanctioned by law. Tipped workers are paid at the subminimum wage of $2.13, while non-tipped workers earn a minimum wage of $7.25. At the same time, women are under-represented in the highest paying jobs in the industry, such as chef.

The lack of a living wage is compounded by little control over scheduling and an absence of paid sick days and health benefits. As part of their report, ROC surveyed 4,300 restaurant workers all over the country; 90 percent lack paid sick days, and the same percentage of workers do not receive health insurance through their employers. Workers have also reported that they fear retribution, job loss or simply cannot afford lost wages if they were to take time off for illness. This means that restaurant workers who handle food and directly interact with customers go to work sick.

An already difficult position is made worse by a lack of anti-sexual harassment programs. Of the workers surveyed by ROC, one in 10 reported that they or a co-worker had experienced sexual harassment in the restaurant. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has targeted the restaurant industry as the “single largest” source of sexual harassment claims. Buttressing this claim is an MSNBC review of EEOC data revealing that almost 37 percent of sexual harassment charges brought to the EEOC by women came from the restaurant industry (within the January to November 2011 timeframe).

The picture painted by ROC’s report is not a pretty one. ROC provides a list of pretty basic — though desperately needed — solutions. Simply raising the federal wage for tipped workers to 70 percent of the regular minimum wage would decrease the gender equity gap within the occupation by a fifth. (This would require a raise to $5.08 from $2.13 and would reduce the gender wage equity gap from 68 percent to 74 percent.) Publicly supporting collective organizing for restaurant workers, enacting legislation that mandates regular, ongoing anti-sexual harassment training, and establishing a national standard that would allow workers to accrue up to seven paid sick days a year are other ideas offered up by the ROC report.

These measures would improve the quality of life for all restaurant workers, especially the women who are disproportionately affected in the first place. These policies make restaurants happier and healthier places for workers, thus ensuring better experiences for customers.

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