Tag Archives: Discrimination

Working Below the Line

Working Below the Line: How the Subminimum Wage for Tipped Restaurant Workers Violates International Human Rights Standards

In collaboration with the UC Berkeley Food Labor Research Center and the UC Berkeley International Human Rights Law Clinic, ROC United released the report “Working Below the Line” on International Human Rights Day, December 10, 2015.

The report finds the two-tiered minimum wage system violates several provisions of international agreements such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, especially for women and workers of color.

Under the current two-tiered wage system, federal law allows employers to pay workers who earn tips a subminimum wage of $2.13 an hour. As a result, several international human rights standards are not met for these workers, including:

- An adequate standard of living and to fair compensation: Although international labor standards require states to enable workers to maintain a suitable standard of living and to “just and favorable remuneration,” federal law allows tipped restaurant workers to be paid less than the regular minimum wage. As a result, these workers are at least two times more likely to live in poverty than the general U.S. population. “Wage theft” and other wage violations by employers is also a significant problem.

–  Protection from discrimination based on gender and race: Sexual harassment as well as gender and racial discrimination abound across the restaurant industry. One investigation concluded that workers in food services accounted for 37 percent of all claims of sexual harassment with the federal government during a 10-month period in 2011. Furthermore, workers of color in restaurant industry are concentrated in the lowest-paid “front and back of the house” occupations such as cooks, dishwashers, bussers, and runners while non-Hispanic whites are disproportionately found in higher paid “front of the house” positions like wait staff and managers.

– Health & Medical Care: Access to affordable basic and preventive healthcare is beyond the reach of many tipped restaurant workers. A 2011 survey of over 4,000 restaurant workers found that 90% did not have access to health insurance through their employer.

Find the Executive Summary here.

Find the full report here.


Working Below The Line

Jim Crow report

Ending Jim Crow in America’s Restaurants: Racial and Gender Occupational Segregation in the Restaurant Industry

While Jim Crow laws regulated the enforced separation between white and African American patrons in restaurants, today restaurant workers are effectively separated by race and gender by a partition between livable-wage and poverty-wage positions. 

The restaurant industry employs 11 million workers and is one of the fastest growing sectors of the U.S. economy. Despite the industry’s growth, restaurant workers occupy seven of the ten lowest-paid occupations reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the economic position of workers of color in the restaurant industry is particularly precarious. Restaurant workers experience poverty at nearly three times the rate of workers overall, and workers of color experience poverty at nearly twice the rate of white restaurant workers.

By focusing on the state with the largest restaurant industry, California, which includes several cities that are repeatedly named among the top dining destinations nationwide and one of the most diverse populations of any state in the country, the findings in this report have national significance.

Based on government data analysis, a limited pool of employer interviews, and interviews with experts, the initial findings explored in this report suggest the need for further research to more deeply understand the restaurant industry’s occupational segregation problem and how to address it.

Key findings include:

-The greatest racial and gender wage inequality is in the highest wage occupational categories—namely fine-dining server and bartender positions. The restaurants with the highest wages and greatest number of employees had the highest rates of segregation in both Front-of-the-House service positions and Back-of-the-House kitchen positions.

– Worker interviews point to real structural barriers that workers of color face in accessing livable-wage fine-dining service positions, including lack of training, social networks, transportation, childcare, interactions with the criminal justice system, and more. Those real barriers result in employers lacking pools of candidates of color for hiring into fine-dining service positions.

- In California, Latinos experience the highest levels of directly observable occupational segregation, with substantial under-representation in the higher-paying server and bartender occupations, while African Americans are largely absent altogether from meaningful participation in full-service restaurant occupations and overrepresented in limited-service/fast-food occupations.  

- As a result of this segregation, overall after adjusting for education and language proficiency, workers of color receive 56% lower earnings when compared to equally qualified white workers. Women of color, on average, earned 71% of what white men earn, amounting to a $4-per-hour wage differential.

- States like California that have higher minimum wages have lower gender and race wage inequality than the national average, but the disparity is still quite high.

Find the full report here.

Tipped Over the Edge – Gender Inequity in the Restaurant Industry Featured Image

Tipped Over the Edge – Gender Inequity in the Restaurant Industry

Our “Tipped Over the Edge” was released on Capitol Hill by U.S. Representative Donna Edwards and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, and other major research and advocacy organizations, including Family Values @ Work, HERVotes Coalition, the Institute For Women’s Policy Research, MomsRising, National Coalition On Black Civic Participation’s Black Women’s Roundtable,  National Council For Research On Women, National Organization For Women, National Partnership For Women & Families, National Women’s Law Center, Wider Opportunities For Women, Women Of Color Policy Network (NYU Wagner), and 9to5 National Association for Working Women.



The report shows that women who work in the industry face systematic discrimination, poverty wages, a lack of sick days, and five times more harassment than the general female workforce. One major cause of poverty for these working women is that restaurant lobbyists have succeeded in keeping the federal minimum wage for servers and other tipped workers frozen at only $2.13 per hour for the past 20 years.

Findings in the report include the following:

Profiting from poverty.

– Since 52% of all restaurant workers are women, but 66% of tipped workers are women, the lower minimum wage for tipped workers is essentially creating legalized gender inequity in the restaurant industry. In most industries, the gender wage gap is due to employer discrimination, but in the restaurant industry, it’s also a matter of law.

– Seven of the 10 lowest-paid occupations in the United States are restaurant occupations. Most of these occupations are majority female and pay median wages below the poverty line.

– Servers – of whom 71 percent are female – are almost three times more likely to be paid below the poverty line than the general workforce and nearly twice as likely to need food stamps as the general population.

– Despite having the same poverty rate for the overall workforce of 6.7 percent, states that follow the federal tipped subminimum wage have a much higher poverty rate for servers than states without a subminimum wage (19.4 percent vs. 13.6 percent), and this burden of poverty falls mostly on women.

Discrimination by design.

– The industry follows a conscious business model of confining women to the lower-paid positions within restaurants. Women are hired for only 19 percent of chef positions, for example, even though traditionally most women are more likely to do a majority of the cooking at home.

– In addition, women are confined to the lower-paying segments of the industry such as quick-serve and family style rather than the highest-paying fine dining segment. So even within the same job classification of server, full-time, year-round female servers are paid just 68 percent of what male servers are paid ($17,000 vs. $25,000 annually). Over a work career, that means the industry takes an extra $320,000 from each female server – money that might otherwise make it possible to buy a home or car or send children to college.

Five times more sexual harassment.

– Nearly 37 percent of all sexual harassment charges filed by women with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) come from the restaurant industry – more than 5 times the rate for the general female workforce.

Food handling while sick.

– While only 31 percent of U.S. employers don’t provide health coverage for employees, 90 percent of restaurant workers surveyed nationwide reported not being provided employer-paid sick days or health benefits. Two–thirds reported having to cook, prepare, and/or serve food while sick because they could not afford to take unpaid time off.

Unpredictable scheduling.

– Restaurants typically choose not to provide workers with predictability and more than a few days’ advance notice of schedules, a burden that falls hardest on women juggling child care or elder care arrangements.

Blacks in the Industry [Brief] Featured Image

Blacks in the Industry [Brief]

The potential for the growing restaurant industry to revive a lifeless job market is limited by both bad jobs and racial segregation. The industry’s many poverty-wage jobs are disproportionately held by people of color and the livable-wage jobs, mostly server and bartender positions in fine dining restaurants, are disproportionately held by Whites. The facts and figures laid out in the “Blacks in the Industry” report show the severity of the situation for Blacks in the industry and underline the urgent need for action.

While restaurants were a major site of the many sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement that challenged the system of official segregation that denied patrons of color their human dignity, today we are fighting a system of de facto segregation to reclaim dignity for workers of color in this immense and growing industry. Black diners, who contributed almost $25 billion to the restaurant industry in 2010, have the opportunity to stand in solidarity with Black restaurant workers.

Download the full report here

This report is endorsed by the National Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, the Insight’s Center Closing the Racial Wealth Gap, the Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference, and the Applied Research Center.

2011 ROC-United National Convening in COLORSLINES

Real Diversity Looks Like Inclusion

By Rinku Sen at COLORLINES

A few weeks ago I spoke to the national alliance Voices for America’s Children. During the Q&A someone asked me, “Could you tell us what real diversity looks like?” This person had filled out many of those funder diversity forms that asks the racial, gender and class identity of all your staff, board, and participants, but she noted that just being able to count off some colored faces doesn’t mean you’re actually meeting the needs of communities of color.

The next week, I was with the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, of which I am on the board, for their annual membership convening in Chicago. ROC-United is a deeply multiracial organization, reflecting the full range of people working in the industry. The organization focuses on high-end restaurants, where most front-of-the-house workers are white, and most back-of-the-house workers are immigrants. In addition to those folks, it also organizes black workers who are shut out of high-end restaurants altogether and largely relegated to fast food. ROC-United members helped me identify markers of equity and inclusion within organizations, which is key to generating equity and inclusion out in the world. So here are three signs you’re on the right track:

1. In a truly inclusive situation, everybody sets the agenda and participates. When people come to the party, they influence the venue, the food, the music and the games. They speak. They bring friends. Members chose ROC-United’s national campaigns to fight for paid sick leave and to raise the tipped workers’ federal minimum wage. At each step, members weighed the information they had (much of which they collected themselves through the largest national survey of restaurant workers in existence), discussed pros and cons, and then decided where to invest their energies and how. At this convening, restaurant workers set up the technology, cleaned up after dinner, ran small group discussions, analyzed the industry, showed videos they had made, served on the board of directors and so on. And they spent a lot of time thanking people, going so far as to bow down to each other. There are certainly leadership roles and structures—everything is not flat. But one can figure out without trying too hard how the structures work, and can rise in the organization by showing up and taking part.

2. People stand up for each other. A lot of political education takes place in truly inclusive settings. That’s the process by which people learn about why everyone else is in the room with them. I watched a set of video interviews with various members—Nepalese, Mexican, African American—and in each one, the person acknowledged the hardships that people of other colors face in the industry. At these gatherings, it is not uncommon to hear five times a day these two sentences: “We’re ROC-United. That means we look out for each other.” The organizational chant is very simple, just four easy lines, and at last count they can do it in a dozen languages. Of course, you can’t just say that; you have to actually do it. This isn’t just cosmetic. Standing up for each other shows in ROC’s very strategy, which is designed to back up all of the people who are trying to do the right thing in this industry.

3. It is messy and hilarious and joyful. There’s so much angst around working across race. When we also have violent reminders of how many people are threatened by multiculturalism, as we did in Oslo just two weeks after this gathering, a lot of heaviness can accompany the work. But being in truly inclusive groups is liberating. It’s fun. It doesn’t look seamless because it’s not—individuals and groups have to make decisions all the time about which way to go, because inertia generally drives us away from each other. But in the chaos of working things out, we learn, our sense of humor expands, and we laugh, even in the thick of our suffering. You can see that fun in action at the flash mob that ROC United did at the Taste of Chicago this summer. They had little time to practice, and, frankly, they’re a dancing mess. But everybody’s in here, the Millennials and the baby boomers; the U.S. born and the immigrants; the front-of-the-house and the back. They had a damn good time, and so did the crowds watching them.

 [AFG_gallery id=’4′]

Restaurants and Race: Discrimination and Disparity in the Food Service Sector

By Saru Jayaraman, ROC Co-founder for Race, Poverty, and Environment: A Journal for Social and Environmental Justice

Walk into any fine-dining restaurant in an American urban center and you will observe: white workers serving and bartending; workers of color clearing tables, preparing food, and washing dishes.

Like the segregated buses of the Jim Crow South, the restaurant industry has reserved the best jobs in the front for whites, while workers of color are relegated to the back (unless they are bussing tables in the front). Both restaurant workers and employers admit that this stark divide along color lines is commonly accepted industry practice based on notions of skills, table manners, language ability, and appearance. Thanks to a legal framework that demands proof of discriminatory intent, this obvious form of segregation has existed mostly unchallenged until recently.

With over 10 million employees, the restaurant industry is the nation’s second largest private sector employer—just behind retail—and the largest part of the nation’s food system. The industry continues to grow rapidly, even as other sectors decline during the current economic crisis, and is considered a gateway of opportunity for immigrants and low-wage workers of color from all over the world. However, research shows that in the country’s largest urban areas, only about 20 percent of all restaurant industry jobs provide living wages and benefits. (There are some instances of waiters and bartenders at fine-dining places in urban centers earning between $50,000 and $150,000 annually.)

With less than .01 percent union density nationwide, the industry mostly provides low- and poverty-wage jobs with little access to benefits. In 2010, the median hourly wage for restaurant workers nationwide was $8.86, which means that over half of all restaurant workers earned less than the poverty wage of $8.90 for a family of three. Also, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the three lowest-paid occupations in America in 2009 were to be found in the restaurant industry.

ROC: A Worker Union Born of Tragedy
In April 2002, the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) was founded in New York, to provide support to restaurant workers displaced from the World Trade Center by the events of September 11. ROC has since grown to include over 7000 members in eight localities nationwide and engages in workplace justice campaigns, cooperative restaurant development, organizing of responsible employer partners, and participatory research and policy work at the local and federal levels.

From 4,323 surveys of restaurant workers nationwide and over 240 employer interviews, ROC has concluded that workers of color in the restaurant industry are subject to a minimum of $3 wage differential (or “race tax”) from their white counterparts. In every urban area that ROC studied, workers of color were segregated by segment (overrepresented in fast food restaurants and underrepresented in fine-dining) and by position (overrepresented “behind the kitchen door” or relegated to busser and runner positions in the front), which essentially kept them in lower-paying jobs with less access to benefits.

In a study conducted from 2006-09, ROC discovered that of the 200 pairs of job applicants (white and people of color) they sent to fine-dining restaurants, white workers were twice as likely to obtain living-wage positions. Even holding accent constant, people of color were questioned about their qualifications at three times the rate of white workers. ROC also found that a strong European accent (even if incomprehensible) was an advantage to obtaining one of these living-wage positions, whereas a Third World accent was a serious detriment.

Perhaps the most insidious finding of all in ROC’s nationwide study was that segregation is fully expected and accepted in the industry. Interviews with hundreds of employers and workers revealed that both groups found it completely natural that white workers were almost always found in the highest-paid positions. Employers and several white workers agreed that workers of color lacked the skills, “table talk” (the ability to converse easily and relate to a wealthy white clientele), and/or appearance to succeed as fine-dining waiters and bartenders. Interviews with workers of color, however, revealed that many were training less-experienced white workers who then immediately surpassed them into waitstaff and bartending positions that paid up to five times more than what they were earning as bussers.

Restaurant Daniel: ROC’s First Victory
In 2005, several Latino and Bangladeshi runners and bussers from Restaurant Daniel, New York City’s only four-star restaurant, approached ROC with the complaint that they had been repeatedly passed over for promotion to wait staff and bartenders by inexperienced white workers. The difference in salary was literally five times greater—bussers and runners earn between $20-$30,000, whereas waiters and bartenders can earn around $150,000 annually.

Following a large-scale public campaign and litigation in federal court, which  resulted in a two-page cover story in the Dining Section of the New York Times, Restaurant Daniel moved to promote several of the bussers and runners. Most importantly, the restaurant developed a new promotions policy monitored by the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC), which compelled management to inform all workers of new openings and to provide training that would allow workers to advance into these positions. This came as a result of a key finding about the lack of transparency with regard to job openings. Workers of color rarely knew about potential opportunities for training or promotion to jobs for which white workers were hired from the outside.

In essence, the lack of formalized career ladders makes it possible for restaurant employers to use such dubious criteria for hiring and promotion as “table talk” and appearance, which is thinly disguised racial bias. The frequently cited language ability and accent criteria were shown to be patently false in the Restaurant Daniel case, in which many inexperienced new French immigrants were almost immediately placed on the dining floor as waiters.

Color/Gender Segregation: A Nationwide Malaise
When ROC replicated its study in urban areas around the country, it discovered that segregation and discrimination in hiring and promotion was quite commonplace. In Miami, for example, segregation along skin color lines is very obvious—even more than along race or ethnicity. Whites and light-skinned Latinos typically serve and bartend, while darker-skinned Latinos are more likely to be bussing and running food to tables, or preparing food in the kitchen along with African Americans. Haitians, the darkest, poorest, and most vulnerable population in Miami, are almost always the dishwashers—the lowest-paid position in the restaurant. The segregation is further confirmed by wage differentials unearthed by ROC’s nearly 600 surveys of restaurant workers in Miami-Dade County: the reported median wage was $11.29 for whites, $10.00 for Latinos, $9.00 for non-Haitian Blacks, and $8.21 for Haitians.

Also, ROC found the segregation and disparity even greater for women of color who face the double oppression of race and gender discrimination in a very male-dominated sector. In every city surveyed, women of color were more heavily concentrated in fast food restaurants than the overall survey population, and in most cities they suffered a $5 median wage differential (race and gender tax) from the overall survey population.

In several locations, racial segregation by segment and position was further compounded by geographical segregation. For example, in the Detroit metropolitan region, low-wage workers of color must commute long distances with little or no access to public transportation for living-wage jobs in the suburbs where they face tremendous discrimination. One restaurant worker in Detroit claimed that applying for a job at a fine-dining restaurant in Troy, a suburb of Detroit, elicited the query: “You’re not planning on eating here, are you?” She was also told that the restaurant had never hired an African American in its 10-year history.

ROC’s Ongoing Campaign
ROC has taken the following steps to address racial segregation and discrimination in the restaurant industry:

  • Developed policy initiatives that penalize discrimination and incentivize internal promotion, including the posting of new job openings in living-wage positions. In Detroit, ROC helped develop local legislation that would compel the city to consider employment discrimination in granting a local liquor license. In New York, ROC recognized responsible restaurant owners who signed a Code of Conduct and offered internal promotion and transparency in the hiring and promotion process, including posting new job openings in living-wage positions. ROC promoted these employers among conscientious consumers and local elected officials so that they may be granted city-based incentives, such as expedited license processing.
  • Worked with responsible employers over several years to develop formalized career ladders and advanced job training programs for low-wage workers of color to move into living-wage jobs at fine-dining restaurants. The idea is to encourage the industry to consider internal promotion based on skill and achievement rather than on subjective bias. The concept of a worker earning a certificate of promotion from busser to waiter had never before been considered within this informal industry.
  • Continued waging campaigns against segregation and discrimination at high-profile restaurants—as we did with Restaurant Daniel—to inform the industry that there will be consequences for segregation and discrimination based on race, and that the current racially-divided state of the industry is unacceptable. The cover story in the Times Dining Section sparked a vigorous debate within the industry and elicited a tremendous outpouring of gratitude from workers.
  • Implemented ongoing research to document and publicize—through traditional and newer media—the plight of workers of color in the food service sector and the public health consequences of having low-wage workers without access to healthcare or paid sick leave preparing and serving food. (In one restaurant worker survey, more than two-thirds of the 4,323 respondents reported cooking and serving food while sick.).

Moving Forward: The Two-Pronged Approach
Even if racial bias were to vanish entirely from the restaurant industry, it would be impossible for most workers of color to earn a living wage, primarily because only about 20 percent of all available jobs pay that much. So the fight for equal opportunity has to happen in tandem with the fight for a living wage. And until we confront these social and economic disparities, all Americans will continue to suffer the moral, economic, and public health consequences of a segregated food service industry.