February 14, 2011 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 7Comment

Annual sales revenue in the nation’s restaurant industry tops $515 billion, but few of the 10.3 million workers in the industry earn a living wage. Those are the findings released today of comprehensive surveys of working conditions for 1,700 restaurant workers employed in Washington DC, Miami and Los Angeles. To date, more than 4,300 workers have been interviewed in eight cities in a project coordinated by Restaurant Opportunities Center United.

In Miami and Los Angeles, 75% and 71% of the restaurant workers surveyed, respectively, have no health insurance; the figure was 48% for respondents working in Washington, DC. Very few restaurant workers receive paid sick leave. In Miami and Los Angeles, the figure was only about 10%; in DC about 20%. Think about those figures when you read that 60% or so of workers in all three cities also reported preparing, cooking or serving food while sick. During his interview, one DC worker said:

“We all go to work when we’re sick because we can’t afford to miss work. But also because it feels a lot of the time the employer doesn’t give a BEEP if you’re sick or not. They want you there because you’re a body to fill a position.”

The release of the report in Washington DC was hosted by the management and staff of Eatonville, a locally-owned restaurant that provides paid-sick leave. Eatonville’s founder reminded participants that providing healthy safe food, fare wages and benefits comes at a price. If you’re paying $6 for a burger instead of $12, somebody’s not getting her fare share. It’s probably the workers who prepared, or later cooked or served the food.

Particularly troubling were results indicating serious problems with wage theft. In Miami and Los Angeles, 27% of workers reported being asked to work off-the-clock without pay; in Washington DC more than 35% of workers reported this illegality. Comments from restaurant employers suggest paying overtime is somehow optional:

“I can’t afford [overtime]. If they do work more than forty hours per week they’re not getting overtime. I pay them for whatever. I’m just not set up that way.”

Such findings lead me to ask: if employers refuse to pay legally-mandated overtime pay, do they pay their share of taxes? do they comply with safety requirements?

Respondents described safety hazards and the harm caused by them, not just to themselves, but to co-workers.

“I saw a lot of falls and cuts, and management didn’t seem to care…They know they can [have this attitude because] there are no consequences.”

Depending on the city, 20-32% of workers surveyed said they had not received adequate safety training. These figures were especially pronounced when the data was stratified by country of birth and immigration status. In Miami, about 20% of survey respondents were undocumented workers employed in local restaurants. More than half (55%) reported not having received adequate safety training. For undocumented workers in Washington DC, the figure was 42%.

Congratulations to the worker leaders in Washington DC (report here), Miami (report here) and Los Angeles (report here) for their perseverance and commitment to this ambitious research project. It is no small feat tracking down and interviewing 500 restaurant workers—with their unpredictable schedules and long hours—- in each of your home towns.

The National Restaurant Association is not a fan of ROC’s worker-directed studies. Their website says

“Groups such as the Restaurant Opportunities Center are targeting restaurants they say have poor working conditions.”

The way I see it, workers themselves are reporting wage violations, unsafe working conditions, segregation and discrimination. They’ve organized to make the public aware of their situation.

7 thoughts on “Behind the kitchen door: low wages, few benefits for many U.S. restaurant workers

  1. My wife of 30 years is a waitress. She earns $2.63 per hour plus tips. Taxes are assessed on the assumption that tips represent 8% of value of food served. Most of my wife’s weekly paychecks amount to 25 dollars or less.
    No benefits
    No sick days
    No 401K
    This particular place has been one of my wife’s favorite places to work. It just went under.

    New restaurant: no problem getting a job, my wife is known as a real pro. New employees come in for two days of “training”. No pay for that.

    One place my wife worked in years ago did not pay her for several months. (It’s OK, you’ve got your tips). The workers finally called the Labor Relations Board. They couldn’t be bothered, as the restaurant was too small. (Do you want to close him down? Then you would have no job!)

    I see the crowds in Cairo who have had enough. Why have we not seen the crowds in the streets in the USA?

    My wife is becoming militant (at last)!

  2. You may also be interested in the excellent report about restaurant workers in San Francisco’s Chinatown available in English, Spanish, and Chinese here:


    Even in a “progressive” city that requires employers to provide paid sick leave, wage theft and health and safety hazards are rampant.

  3. Y’know, we just had two of the biggest restaurant-centered holidays in the US… Valentine’s Day, and the Super Bowl. I’m thinking that sometime in January, there needs to be a Restaurant Workers’ Awareness Week complete with news articles, awareness walks and signs that can be posted where restaurants treat their employees right. I’ve made a point of asking the servers at my local sports bar how they’re doing, and of telling the managers I appreciate their policies.

  4. I’ve seen window ads (not in recent years) on burger places offering $11/hr starting wages. A minor quibble. it is fair rate, not fare rate, unless the comment has a deeper message than I understood.

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