December 1, 2011 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 0Comment

The worker-led organization Restaurant Opportunities Center United released this month a new type of diners’ guide, one that focuses on working conditions for the employees at 180 restaurants nationwide. The US restaurant industry employs 10 million individuals and is the fastest growing sector in the economy. More than half of restaurant workers, however, earn less than the federal poverty line and very, very few (an estimated 10%) are offered paid sick leave. [Achoo!! from the waitress. Sniffle, sniffle, cough, cough from the cook.]

The 30-page Consumer Guide on the Working Conditions of American Restaurants provides information on the wages paid, sick leave policy, and advancement opportunities at some of the nation’s largest restaurant chains including Hooters, Hard Rock Cafe, On the Border and TGI Friday’s. As Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation said in reaction to the guide:

“When you go out to eat, you shouldn’t get wage theft, racism, and sick cooks in the kitchen along with your meal. How the food tastes at a restaurant really doesn’t matter if the people who work there are being mistreated. This guide will help you separate the good guys from the bad.”

Looking through the guide, I was particularly impressed with the employers who pay $5 per hour or more for tipped employees. The federal minimum wage for tipped workers is only $2.13 per hour, a rate that hasn’t changed since 1991. A report by the National Employment Law Project explains the National Restaurant Association’s role in maintaining the inadequate wage. With inflation adjustment alone, the wage should be $4.89 per hour, and likely the reason that ROC’s guide uses the $5 wage for tipped workers as one of its criterion.

ROC’s guide also includes 50 restaurants designated as “high-road employers,” with some receiving special silver or gold recognition for meeting at least two of ROC’s criteria for living wages, benefits and opportunities for internal mobility. Chaya Restaurant Group, El Fuego in Philadelphia, Houlihans in Chicago, and Seva in Ann Arbor, MI are just a few of the gold star recipients.

At the other end of the spectrum, the guide lists four restaurant companies about which employees have sought assistance from ROC-United for discrimination and wage theft problems. They are: Capital Grille, Longhorn Steakhouse, Olive Garden, and Red Lobster.

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