January 14, 2013

The Year of Ethical Eating

Megan Clayton

Megan Clayton

CLF-Lerner Fellow

Center for a Livable Future

Does the person preparing your food get paid sick days?

There are approximately 13.1 million low-wage restaurant workers in the U.S. The majority of these workers are classified as “tipped employees,” which the Department of Labor defines as anyone who works in a position where he or she regularly and customarily earns $30 in tips per month. Despite the fact that the restaurant industry has continued to grow, even during a recession, food service workers experience universally poor working conditions and a tipped minimum wage that hasn’t budged in 20 years. In fact, under the current Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), employers of tipped workers are only required to pay $2.13 per hour, as long as that amount combined with worker earned tips equals the federal minimum wage ($7.25).

According to Restaurant Opportunity Centers United (ROC), a national restaurant workers’ organization founded after 9/11 by Co-Director Saru Jayaraman and workers from the North Tower restaurant Windows on the World, 2013 is the perfect time to get serious about improving $2.13 wages and work conditions for 13 million food service workers. To date, ROC has laid the foundation for change by improving worker policies in high-profile fine dining establishments, winning more than 10 workplace justice campaigns, and recovering over $5 million in misappropriated tips and wages and discrimination payments (including $1.15 million from Del Posto Restaurant, owned by celebrity chef Mario Batali). The organization has also developed research reports that underscore the seriousness of the issue—from economic, justice, and public health perspectives—detailing an industry endemic with worker poverty, wage theft, health and safety risks, lack of access to benefits such as paid sick days and health insurance, race and gender discrimination, and sexual harassment.

To harness the power of the public, ROC has complemented these efforts with a variety of action-oriented resources that simplify involvement for food consumers. I recommend the following three, which will help you get informed, stay connected, and take action so that your next dining experience (and every one thereafter) also supports the hands that feed us:

No. 1. Get Informed: Read Behind the Kitchen Door, by Saru Jayaraman

Cleverly available on 2/13 (drawing attention to the $2.13 tipped minimum wage), Behind the Kitchen Door combines unforgettable first-hand stories with investigative journalism to reveal the lives of restaurant workers in New York City, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Miami, Detroit, and New Orleans. From this book, you will not only learn about shocking working conditions in U.S. chain and fine dining restaurants, but also how these conditions impact worker health, local economies and communities, and your own health and safety. Ultimately, the book’s intimate accounts of workplace injustice will make you hungry for change and eager to…

No. 2. Get Connected: Log on to The Welcome Table

The Welcome Table is ROC-United’s new website and organization designed specifically for food workers, advocates, and enthusiasts who wish to act in support of a food system that is more responsible, safe, and just. The site serves as a resource hub for users to take action (for example, sign a petition to increase the federal minimum wage and tipped minimum wage for food workers) and learn more about the link between the lives of restaurant workers and your own dining experience. The site also shares ROC’s media efforts, which include a series of short films (which bring to life workers profiled in Behind the Kitchen Door), a photography exhibit, and a full-length fiction feature film.

More than this, though, the site is neat. It opens into the middle of a bustling dining environment, where tables of customers are in the thick of lunchtime conversation, and restaurant staff hurries to fill water glasses and clear plates. This introduction, alone, reminds us of our role in the current food service story and our responsibility to make it a more just and safe way to eat.

Is that you sitting at the back table?

No. 3. Take Action! ROC Diners’ Guide for Ethical Eating and Smartphone App

Indefatigable, ROC United has also published the 2nd annual 2013 edition of the National Diners’ Guide to Ethical Eating. (It also includes a free smartphone app! No excuses!) This guide provides details on the wages, benefits, and promotion practices of the 150 most popular restaurants in America in nine major cities across the country, which includes Los Angeles, New York, and Washington D.C. In addition to this information, the guide also lists restaurants where workers receive the types of benefits and wages that allow them to stay clear of your food while sick as well as pay their bills. Based in the Washington Metropolitan Area (DC, Hyattsville, and Arlington), Busboys and Poets receives a Gold Star rating. This restaurant meets 3 of 5 ROC criteria: non-tipped workers earn a living wage, workers get paid sick days regardless of whether they are full or part-time, and the restaurant belongs to ROC’s Restaurant Industry Roundtable, a group of employers promoting high road profitability in the industry.

Who is on the other end of the spectrum?  You may be surprised to see a number of your favorite spots; for example, restaurants that do not provide paid sick days include Five Guy Burgers and Fries, Maggiano’s Little Italy, McCormick & Schmicks, Morton’s & Ruth’s Chris Steak Houses, and Starbucks.

If there is any doubt about why this information is great for supporting food workers and your health, please revisit items #1 and #2.

What other resources have you found to support improved working conditions for America’s food workers? Let me know in the comment section; happy just and safe eating!


  1. Julia Wolfson

    Posted by Julia Wolfson

    Thanks Megan for this posting. I am a big admirer of ROC’s work and they are a valuable organization advocating for much needed change in the restaurant world. In almost 10 years working in restaurants (some large, some small, but all fine dining) I never had a single paid sick day. Not only that, but if I or another cook was sick, more often than not, we came to work anyway (sneezing and coughing all over the food we were making). There was a (not always unspoken) understanding that if you missed work, you placed a burden on your co-workers and made everyone else’s jobs more difficult while you were home resting, and that was not acceptable.

    The lack of paid sick days, lack of health benefits, and the practice of working for more hours than you are actually paid for are widespread problems in the restaurant business.

    One other component of this issue to think about is the wage inequality within the restaurant. In most restaurants, the front of house staff (servers, bussers) are making more money than the kitchen staff who are actually preparing your food. In almost all cases, the cooks never see a cent of the money the diner tips (even though if you think about it, don’t you tip more when the food is really good?). While legally kitchen staff must be paid at least minimum wage, many of the staff are illegal immigrants working off the books for below minimum wage, and others are paid on the books at a living wage, but are required to work more hours than they are actually paid for. This effectively brings their true hourly wage down, sometimes to below minimum wage levels. Some restaurants, like the very fine dining Per Se in Manhattan (owned by Thomas Keller) have changed to the European system of tipping where tips are pooled and a percentage is shared with the kitchen staff. Cooks in his kitchen generally work over 14 hours days and get paid a salary, not by the hour. But, recognizing their hard work, and the amazing food they produce by giving them a share of the tips helps them to feel appreciated and to make ends meet.

    Next time you’re eating in a restaurant, ask your server how the tips get distributed. Are they pooled? do they get shared with the kitchen?

  2. Julia – thanks for this great comment and for sharing your experience. I appreciate you discussing the work environment within the restaurant and disparities in pay and norms even among employees of the same establishment. Asking about tip distribution – great tip for the next dinner out!

  3. Posted by galianoandometepe

    I would happily pay more (the real cost of having a meal at a restaurant…) for the meal if I knew that the restaurant staff were paid a living wage and that the customer was not expected to top up what the owner was willing to pay. We are not expected to do this in other industries, so it strikes me as an odd system in restaurants.

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