Restaurant workers are starved of benefits, report says

By Jane BlackWashington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 11, 2010

Despite the recession, the restaurant industry is thriving. Many of its workers, however, are not.

A new report from the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC), a nonprofit organization that advocates better wages and work conditions for restaurant workers, revealed that 90 percent of industry staff members are not offered health insurance or sick days, 67 percent go to work sick, and 38 percent are forced to work off the clock.

Earnings also lag. Restaurant workers around the country on average made $12,868 in 2008 compared with $45,371 in the general private sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The authors surveyed more than 2,500 workers and 150 employers in five cities: Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, New York and Portland, Maine.

The reports tell two big stories, said Jose Oliva, ROC’s national policy coordinator: “One, the restaurant industry is resilient, even in the face of this Great Recession. The other is that the kind of jobs that are being created are not the kind of jobs we want to have in America when we come out of the recession.”

Restaurants took a hit during the economic downturn. But by July 2009, growth had returned. This year, the National Restaurant Association projects that the industry will employ nearly 13 million people. Revenues will rise 2.5 percent to $580 billion, or 4 percent of the gross domestic product.

“This report paints a distorted image of the restaurant industry and its employees while pushing the ROC’s agenda,” said Mike Donohue, a spokesman for the National Restaurant Association. He cited data that showed 32 percent of adults get their first job experience in a restaurant, and many jobs lead to management and ownership. “The restaurant industry is proud of its diversity and unparalleled record of opportunity.”

The industry does provide some “good jobs,” which ROC defines as ones that pay a living wage, provide benefits and offer opportunities for advancement. But researchers found that white workers disproportionately claimed them. Workers of color, meanwhile, were concentrated in “bad jobs,” where the median hourly wage was $11.50 per hour — or $3.20 less per hour than their white counterparts earned.

When it comes to waiters and busers, the federal minimum wage is $2.13; there has not been an increase since 1991. In May, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) introduced the WAGES Act, which would increase it to $3.75 per hour three months after enactment. That rate would rise to $5.50 per hour by 2012.

The industry’s bad jobs hurt more than just workers; they harm society, Oliva said. Low wages and lack of job security lead to increased reliance on social-assistance programs, an indirect subsidy to employers engaging in poor practices. For example, ROC reported that 26.5 percent of workers said they or a family member had visited an emergency room without being able to pay for treatment.


Restaurant industry breeds a dangerous culture for workers

Restaurants were a cesspool of ill-advised and/or illegal sexual antics long before the rise of “meathead” culture, the term Anthony Bourdain now says he regrets having coined in his memoir “Kitchen Confidential.”

And it isn’t likely to change. Hollywood will be a comfortable, nurturing industry for women, casting-couch-free, before female eatery workers can safely go to work without body armor or a lawyer in tow.

Not every claim of sexual harassment is true. Those accused are entitled to defend themselves in or outside a courtroom. But my first and only restaurant job, decades ago, revealed to me how pervasive the sleaze can be.

At a high-volume Long Island steakhouse where I toiled as a busboy, male waiters and managers regarded waitresses as fresh meat. The “fun” lasted until the inevitable bad blood and jealousies ignited by the licentious atmosphere began to mess up dining-room service.

The owner’s solution was a masterstroke of 1970 simplicity: He fired the waitresses. That’s illegal and would be unthinkable today. But the carnal chaos that led up to it were my introduction to the sweaty, testosterone-driven grind of restaurant labor.

Few “glamorous” restaurants are glamorous for those who work there. Undisciplined sexual energy festers in a claustrophobic atmosphere of late-hours, backbreaking work that turns boozy and druggy once dining rooms empty. Compress a Broadway show’s competitive frenzy inside a submarine galley and you’ll get the idea.

Such hothouse conditions don’t encourage employees of either sex to make the wisest decisions. Men usually have the upper hand. Many male chefs enjoy celebrity status that can enhance their seductive powers over star-struck younger cooks, waitresses and even female managers.

Male chefs can also harass other male workers. So, in rare instances, can women toques. But the overwhelming number of victims are women — sometimes even when she’s the boss.

New York women chefs have related to me tales of harassment and worse by male subordinates. Former Dos Caminos executive chef Ivy Stark told me, “It can feel like a war zone.” Celebrity TV toque Carmen Gonzalez, who ran Manhattan’s defunct Lucy’s, was shocked to find horny New York kitchen workers less respectful of her authority than she’d found previously in the “macho territory” of what she called “very Latin” Miami.

Sure, genuine love — even marriages! — can grow out of restaurant romances, as it may in any other business. But more common are furtive encounters in corners of bistro basements or anywhere a guy can get away with it, sometimes in plain sight.