February 13, 2012 Liz Borkowski, MPH 3Comment

Most readers are probably aware that tomorrow, 2/14, is Valentine’s Day, but do you know what’s significant about 2/13? It’s not a cue to buy chocolates — it’s a reminder that federal law only requires restaurants to pay their workers an hourly wage of $2.13. That minimum hasn’t been raised since 1991; if it had been adjusted for inflation since then, it would now be $4.89.

The Restaurant Opportunities Center has conducted several restaurant-worker surveys to document issues with wages and working conditions in the restaurant industry. They’ve found the following:

The restaurant industry is one of the largest and fastest growing industries and has become one of the major employers in the United States. There are over 10.1 million workers in the restaurant industry, which is nearly one in every ten private sector employees.

Despite its size and growth, the industry suffers from pervasively low wages and wage theft. Government data shows that the median wage in the restaurant industry is only $8.89, which means that over half of restaurant workers earn below the federal poverty line for a family of three. This is not surprising, given that the federal minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13. Moreover, our survey work has shown that over one third (35.1%) of restaurant workers have had to work “off the clock” for no pay, and almost half (43.9%) have worked overtime with being paid the legally mandated 150% overtime wage.

The pervasive lack of benefits in the industry strains workers and puts consumers at risk. Our survey research has demonstrated that almost 9 out of 10 restaurant workers lack paid sick days (87.7%) and health insurance from their employer (89.7%). As a result of the fact that workers cannot afford to take care of themselves or stay home when they are sick,two-thirds of restaurant workers (63.6%) working sick, unnecessarily placing co-workers and diners at risk.

Occupational segregation and discrimination on the basis of race and gender has resulted in people of color, and women of color in particular, being concentrated in the industry’s lowest-paid positions. Our survey research has shown that the median wage among white restaurant workers is almost $4 per hour higher than the median wage among restaurant workers of color. We have documented that people of color are frequently segregated into the lowest-paying industry segments and the lowest-paying positions within these segments. We have used matched pair audit testing, in which a white and people of color applicants with the same qualifications, appearance, and personality characteristics are sent to apply to the same fine dining restaurant for the same server position. Our matched pair audit testing has shown that in New York, white applicants were twice as likely (54.5%) to receive a job offer as a person of color, even though the applicants of color were always assigned slightly higher qualifications for the job.

The Restaurant Opportunities Center of Washington, DC (ROC-DC) is marking 2/13 with a Congressional Briefing on Gender Equity in the Restaurant Industry. Their event announcement notes:

Women make up the majority of the industry’s more than 10 million workers, but suffer in its lowest-paying positions with little access to benefits. Moreover, 66% of the industry’s 3.6 million tipped workers are women, for whom the federal minimum wage has been frozen at $2.13 for over twenty years. This makes the restaurant industry the only sector of the U.S. economy in which a lower wage for women is set by law and not just employer practice.

I’m writing this post ahead of time, so the report ROC-DC will be releasing at this briefing isn’t online yet. By the time you read this, it will probably be available from ROC’s Reports page — and whether it is or not, there are already several reports there worth checking out, including Taking the High Road: A How-To Guide for Successful Restaurant Employers and Behind the Kitchen Door: A Multi-Site Study of the Restaurant Industry. (Celeste blogged about Behind the Kitchen Door when it came out.)

The good news is that some employers are going beyond the minimal federal requirements and offering their workers livable wages, paid sick leave and/or health insurance, opportunities for advancement, and other things that many of us take for granted in our jobs. The ROC Diners’ Guide highlights several national chains and some local spots (especially in New York and DC) that earn high marks in these categories. (I was happy to see that two of my favorite restaurants within walking distance are “high road” employers — Eatonville and Busboys & Poets in DC.) ROC makes the case that such employers can profit from their worker-friendly policies by reducing employee turnover and increasing employee loyalty and productivity.

3 thoughts on “The significance of 2/13

  1. “Government data shows that the median wage in the restaurant industry is only $8.89”

    Any idea if that is wage or actual (post-tip) earnings?

  2. I’m continually surprised to hear from friends and family members who don’t realize that the vast majority of tipped employees are paid only $2.13 per hour. Thanks for reminding us again of this inequity.

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