Many Americans who dine out in restaurants ask questions about the food they eat—whether it is wholesome, whether it is locally-grown, whether it is organic, even whether the meat animals have been raised in humane conditions.
Saru Jayaraman, in her book, Behind the Kitchen Door, which I just got finished reading, argued that we diners should be equally concerned about the people though whose hands our food passes. It is short and highly readable, and told mainly through personal stories.
The most shocking chapter was the one entitled “Serving While Sick.” Most restaurant workers do not receive paid sick leave, and cannot afford to skip work because they depend on tips for most of their income. Employers expect them to come to work even if they have ‘flu or other infectious diseases. Jayaraman told the story of Nikki, who was forced to continue serving food in a Washington, D.C., restaurant after coming down with conjuntivitis, and Woong, a Korean-American who served food in an upscale French bistro even after contracting swine ‘flu (H1N1).
A 2011 survey by the Centers for Disease Control indicated that one in eight restaurant workers continued to work on two or more shifts during the previous year while suffering from ‘flu symptoms, vomiting or diarrhea. In summer 2011, thousands of people had to be vaccinated after being exposed to hepatitis by an Olive Garden worker who couldn’t take a day off without losing his job.
Jayaraman said that restaurants who require employees to work while sick are the same ones that cheat employees on wages and tips, demand they work in unsafe conditions and discriminate against dark-skinned and women employees.
The federal minimum wage is $2.13 an hour for restaurant workers, which has been unchanged for 20 years. Workers are expected to make up the rest in tips. In the United States, a tip is not a gratuity—something extra on top of the wage. It is what workers are expected to live on. A tip does not go just to the server. It is supposed to be divided up among all the workers, including the kitchen workers.
Some states do have higher minimum wages than the federal minimum, and California and six other states set the same minimum wage for all workers. But the median wage in 2010 for restaurant workers nationwide was $9.02 an hour, including tips. Restaurant workers’ annual income is about a third of that for all U.S. workers.
In many restaurants, according to Jayaraman, the managers don’t pay them for all the hours worked, and they take a share of the tips, even though both practices are illegal. Racial discrimination and sexual harassment are rampant in restaurants, she wrote. Typically the wait staff are white, the bussers are brown-skinned Latinos and the kitchen staff are black.
We Americans sometimes speak of racism in the past tense, but many restaurants treat employees as they did in the Jim Crow era, and with the same rationale—that white customers wouldn’t like to be waited on by black servers.
Reading this book made me realize what a sheltered life I have led. During my career, I had bosses I didn’t like, but I never had a one who threw things at me, cursed me out in public or refused to pay my wages, let alone one who demanded sexual favors or denied me the possibility of promotion because of my race.
Not all restaurants abuse their employees. I eat out a lot, and I would hate to think my favorite neighborhood diner treats its employees like the ones described in the book. Jayaraman gives examples of restaurant owners who treat their employees fairly, and still make a profit. Her organization, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, which she co-founded with Fekkak Mamdouh, helped found worker-owned restaurants in New York City and Detroit which eventually made a profit.
Nor is a sub-minimum wage necessary for a thriving restaurant industry. Restaurants are prospering in California and especially in San Francisco and Los Angeles, which have strong minimum wage laws.
Jayaraman said restaurant diners can help by being as concerned about the conditions under which their food is prepared as they are about the conditions under which it is produced. And they can help by supporting legislation to give restaurant workers the same protections as other workers.