February 13th, 2012

Arturo Conde

While we often know the history and culture of the foods we eat, and their prices at the supermarkets and restaurants, many of us still neglect the human cost of each meal. How many hands pick the fruits and vegetables that we buy? How many anonymous cooks and servers work hard to make each dining experience memorable? That is why Congresswomen Donna Edwards (D-MD) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) teamed up at 9:00 am this morning withRestaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United) and other restaurant worker advocate organizations to announce a new report that condemns the systematic discrimination of women workers in the restaurant industry.

The report, “Tipped Over the Edge,” documents the exploitation of working women, who make up 55 percent of the workforce, a workforce that is 22 percent Latino. Many women restaurant workers earn poverty wages because the federal minimum wage for servers and other tipped workers has been frozen at $2.13 per hour for over two decades. According to the report, servers, who are 71 percent women, comprise the largest group of all tipped workers and experience almost three times the poverty rate of the workforce as a whole. Consequently, the report explains, many of the women workers who serve American patrons rely on food stamps at almost twice the rate of the general population — and in some cases, cannot afford to feed themselves.

The restaurant industry is one of the few sectors where the majority of male workers have a different minimum wage than the majority of their female counterparts. Non-tipped workers are 52 percent male, earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25, while tipped workers are 66 percent female, earning $5.12 less per hour. This wage inequity between men and women, explained Saru Jayaraman, co-founder and co-director of ROC-United, is not arbitrary.

“It’s a matter of employers paying women less,” said Jayaraman in a phone interview with Univision News. “And in the restaurant industry [this discrimination] is also a matter of law. The law states that the industry can pay less to women because tipped workers are in fact the majority female. And the reason for it is not economic or necessity, it’s political.”

According to Jayaraman, the National Restaurant Association does not oppose overall minimum wage increases as long as the minimum wage for tipped workers remains frozen. The lobbying powerhouse, which defends the interests of over 380,000 restaurants, gained a foothold in the national spotlight when former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain led them, first as a board member and then as president. Under his tenure, the association allied itself closely with cigarette makers to fight restaurant smoking bans, spoke out against lowering blood-alcohol limits as a way to prevent drunk driving, upheld the minimum tip wage freeze, and opposed a patients’ bill of rights in defense of the restaurant industry’s interests.

Not having any job security or health benefits is another concern that affects many restaurant workers like Morena, a 26-year-old Salvadorian server/barista who we will refer to only by her first name to protect her identity. After eight-hour and sometimes twelve-hour shifts in her Washington, D.C. restaurant, Morena can earn as low as $30 with minimal tipping. On her best night, she has earned a maximum of $150, but her average weekly salary hardly covers her expenses. Even by renting an affordable room at her aunt’s home, she still has difficulty paying her car and phone bills.

Morena, like most restaurant workers, relies on her job out of necessity. In El Salvador, she was a supervisor at a textile factory. But in the United States, she has been unable to find comparable work because her English is limited, she lacks a U.S. diploma, and has no textile labor experience in the U.S. Working as a server is her most reliable option, but without any laws to protect her from discrimination, she has needed to count on organizations like ROC-United to defend her worker rights and interests.

ROC-United was born out of the tragedy of September 11, when the surviving workers of the restaurant Windows on World, which was located on the 107thfloor or the World Trade Center, came together to defend restaurant workplace justice. In just over 10 years, it has grown into a national movement with over 9,000 members in 9 cities. And today, with the support of Congresswomen Edwards and Norton, they hope to remind restaurant patrons nationwide that food is a collaborative experience that brings us together as a community. By permitting the unjust wages that keep many restaurant workers in poverty, we dishonor the culture and history that we celebrate with food.