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Dining Out, Dining Healthy: The Link Between Public Health and Working Conditions in New York City’s Restaurant Industry

New York City’s restaurants are vital to our economy. But there is a growing problem that is threatening to undermine the vitality of the industry: restaurant owners that maintain bad dining and working conditions, thereby putting the public’s health at risk.

In this report, we show that restaurant employers who violate labor laws – for example, by paying less than the minimum wage or failing to pay overtime – present a serious danger to the public health. That’s because these employers are pursuing a “low-road” business strategy, which depends on putting enormous pressure on workers and cutting costs on training and wages. The result is a set of workplace practices that endanger food safety, and therefore, the public health.

Our findings are based on two surveys of a total of 880 restaurant workers in New York City, conducted between June 2003 and February 2005. In these surveys, we compared restaurant workers who experienced many labor law violations at their job to those who experienced few labor law violations.

We found that workers who experienced many labor law violations were:

• Six times more likely to report that they frequently had to cut corners because of time pressures, in ways that might have harmed the health or safety of customers.

• Twice as likely not to receive health and safety training from their employer.

• Three times more likely to report that they frequently had to perform several jobs at once.

• Three times more likely to report that they frequently had to work when their restaurant was understaffed.

• Four times more likely to report that they frequently had to do a job for which they weren’t trained.

These low-road business practices were strongly correlated with reports by workers that they had to engage in unsafe food preparation, including:

• Serving dirty, expired, spoiled or leftover food to a customer

• Handling food improperly

• Sneezing, coughing or spitting on food

Finally, analysis of official data from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene confirms the close connection between health code violations and unsafe workplace practices on the one hand, and labor law violations on the other.

In response, the New York City Restaurant Industry Coalition calls for public policies to promote good workplace practices in the restaurant industry. We must ensure that employers who have been adjudicated for violating labor and health and safety regulations – and who are therefore putting the consumer at risk – are not able to continue business as usual. Such policies will help the restaurant industry become a safer, more transparent, and ultimately stronger part of New York City’s economy.

Read and/or download the full report here