On Restaurants’ Busiest Day of the Year, Some Workers Not Earning a Living Wage

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Restaurant Workers in Los Angeles, Miami and Washington, DC Forced to Work While Sick, Undergo Racial Discrimination and

Experience Unsafe Working Conditions, New Reports Say

Three new reports on the wages and working conditions of restaurant workers in Los Angeles, Miami and Washington, DC, plus a National Executive Summary on the restaurant industry, were released today at city-wide summits organized by Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United (http://www.rocunited.org/).

These summits, attended by hundreds of people in the restaurant industry, are part of a national effort to urge Congress to pass the WAGES Act — H.R. 631 — recently introduced by Representative Donna Edwards (D-MD), which would raise the minimum wage for tipped workers for the first time in twenty years.Although Valentine’s Day is the highest grossing day of the year for restaurants, many employees only earn a base salary of $2.13 per hour – the current minimum wage for tipped workers.Speakers at the summits included: Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed; Assistant Secretary of Labor Bill Spriggs; and Tom Saenz, General Counsel of the Mexican American Defense & Education League (MALDEF).

In addition to the three summits in Los Angeles, Miami and Washington, DC, restaurant workers lobbied today in favor of the WAGES Act in Chicago (with Congressman Danny Davis and several state legislators), New York (with Congresswoman Yvette Clarke), New Orleans (with Congressman Cedric Richmond); Detroit (with Congressman Hansen Clarke); Atlanta (with Congressman John Lewis); as well as in Florida (with Congressman David Rivera) and Arkansas (with Senator Mark Pryor).

“For too long restaurant employees have suffered injustices, lacking paid sick days and a livable wage,” said ROC United Director Saru Jayaraman.“It is outrageous that the minimum wage for tipped workers has not increased in two decades.”

The three reports released today, entitled “BEHIND THE KITCHEN DOOR: Inequality & Opportunity in Los Angeles, Miami and Washington DC’s Thriving Restaurant Industries” are based on 1,704 surveys of restaurant workers and interviews with nearly 100 employers. They have been compiled with similar reports by ROC in five other cities into a National Executive Summary based on more than 4,300 surveys and 240 employers nationwide. The studies demonstrate that workers in one of the nation’s largest sectors overwhelmingly lack paid sick days, fair wages and access to health insurance.Tipped workers have not received a government mandated wage increase since 1991; and worse, 11 percent of food workers in Washington, DC, 4 percent in Los Angeles, and 7 percent in Miami, are illegally not earning the minimum wage, even after including tips in their salary.

The WAGES Act would raise the minimum wage of tipped employees from the current level of $2.13 per hour to $3.75 per hour three months after enactment. By 2013 the tipped minimum wage would increase to at least $5.50 per hour.

“The Working for Adequate Gains for Employment in Services (WAGES) Act makes significant steps toward restoring fairness to our minimum wages and ensures that tipped workers are compensated for honest work,” said Congresswoman Edwards. “For far too long, American service sector employees, and particularly tipped workers have been left behind. I am proud to have authored this legislation and look forward to continuing this fight in the 112th Congress. No one should be denied fair wages.”

Other recommendations from “BEHIND THE KITCHEN DOOR” include:

Providing Paid Sick Days—In Miami, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC (where the local paid sick days law excludes tipped servers and bartenders), nearly 90% of restaurant workers do not receive any paid sick days. Thus, more than half of workers interviewed admitted to working in a restaurant while sick. The lack of paid sick days can result in hidden public health and societal costs to the consumer and taxpayer.

Penalizing Racial Discrimination – In both Washington, DC and Los Angeles, more than one-third of workers reported race-based verbal abuse.In Miami, more than 40 percent reported abuse motivated by race. Workers reportedly receive lower pay, harassment and lack of promotion based on certain demographics. Policymakers must explore initiatives that encourage internal promotion and discourage discrimination on the basis of race, gender and immigration status in the restaurant industry.

Enforcing Health & Safety Laws - Health and safety violations reported by restaurant workers include: fire hazards; missing mats on the floor to prevent slipping; and missing guards on cutting machines.Respectively, 24 percent, 22 percent, and 26 percent of respondents in Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and Miami have had no instruction or training on workplace safety.

Implementing Model Employer Practices – There is a wide disparity between restaurants that provide “high road” benefits to employees, and those that take the “low road” in terms of workplace treatment. Restaurants like Teaism in Washington, DC promote ethical treatment of employees. In Los Angeles, 18% of workers reported earning a livable wage. In Miami, one anonymous employer at a family style restaurant pays a minimum of $8 per hour for a dishwasher job, much above the minimum wage. This is proof that it can work.

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