Over the last week a lot has been said about the video that surfaced of Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney speaking to potential donors about the 47% of Americans whom he believed would vote for President Obama – a group he denigrated for its dependency on government aid. When I saw the video, I noticed some unidentifiable bodies passing in front of the hidden camera that none of the pundits seemed to comment on: they were food servers, scurrying to bring or clear plates for the elite crowd. Though clearly visible in that video, these workers, many of whom are the very people Romney is referring to, have been as invisible in the last week of political analysis as they generally are every time we eat out.
What would those workers have been thinking about Romney’s comments as they served his cronies? Probably their own survival. Food service workers are the lowest-paid workers in America; the Bureau of Labor Statistics consistently ranks restaurant worker jobs as six of the ten lowest-paying jobs in America. With a median wage below $9 an hour, food servers in particular suffer from three times the poverty rate of the overall U.S. workforce, and use food stamps at double the rate of all other workers!
Romney’s words imply that these food servers using food stamps, like other people using government aid, do so because they choose such a lifestyle; they are lazy or unwilling to find more lucrative employment and feel entitled to government aid.
In truth, most people choose to work in the restaurant industry – which our research has shown to be difficult, high-stress, and highly risky work – because these are the jobs available in our current economy. With over 10 million jobs, the restaurant industry has been one of the few sectors to grow during the recent economic crisis.
Food service workers find themselves dependent on food stamps – a terrible irony –not because they want to, but because the industry, led by Romney’s wealthy peers, has lobbied to keep wages abysmally low. The National Restaurant Association has lobbied successfully to keep the federal minimum wage for tipped workers at $2.13 for the last twenty-one years.
A true leader in this fight has been the Darden Restaurant Group. Owner of the Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Capital Grille Steakhouse, Longhorn Steakhouse, and more, Darden is the world’s largest full-service restaurant group. Darden’s CEO Clarence Otis earns $8 million annually; a report released last month by Governance Metrics International (GMI) gave Darden a letter grade of “D” due to its over-inflated management salaries and severance package. Meanwhile, Otis and upper management have directed the company to spend millions in the last few years lobbying Congress to keep employment standards low. Darden also has quadrupled its PAC donations to $684,000 in order to increase our relationship-building with policy makers.
Last week, my organization took a group of Darden employees to speak at the company’s annual shareholder meeting at a posh Marriott resort in Orlando, Florida. The meeting was packed with the company’s highest-level management, wearing expensive tailored suits and hovering around Otis like a pack of bodyguards. The workers respectfully brought up issues like the company’s incredibly low wages and lack of paid sick days – which resulted in a Hepatitis A outbreak at an Olive Garden in North Carolina last year – and asked Otis to meet with them to discuss. Otis dismissed every one of them, saying that “your people” – unhappy workers – could “walk across the street” to another restaurant. A long-time investor unrelated to my organization stood up with concern; as someone who ate at Darden restaurants regularly he worried that the company was losing its best talent because of the low wages and benefits. Afterward, this investor told us that he had done the math; if the upper management cut a miniscule portion of their inflated salaries, workers’ wages could increase by almost $3.
Shortly after the meeting, we released a report, “Darden’s Decision,” which both provided affordable alternatives for Darden and outlined how the current practices hurt workers, investors, and consumers. We’re asking everyone to call upon the company to sit down and meet with its employees.
In fact, we all suffer when the workers who touch our food are living in poverty and unable to take a day off when sick. Even Romney’s wealthy donor circle would have been exposed to illness! Since our research shows that 90% of food service workers don’t have access to paid sick days, and with such low wages two-thirds report not being able to take a day off from work while sick, it is overwhelmingly likely that one of those unidentifiable bodies passing in front of the hidden video camera was working while sick. Romney spoke callously about the 47% and then would have sat down to a meal touched by someone in that 47% who more than likely would have been struggling to survive.
Saru Jayaraman is the Co-Director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and the Director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Her book, Behind the Kitchen Door, is forthcoming in February 2013 by, Cornell University Press.