If you’ve been harassed or discriminated against at your restaurant job, here’s what you can do about it.
There’s a federal agency called the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that is responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against workers. Discrimination can include harassment, direct discrimination (such as not hiring someone based on their national origin) or indirect discrimination (such as requiring the ability to lift 50 lbs, even though the position is an office job).
The EEOC was created in 1964 under the Civil Rights Act and covers most employers with at least 15 employees. Since the agency was created, they’ve expanded the definition of discrimination to include these categories: race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy and related conditions, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (over 40), disability and genetic information.
If you’ve been discriminated against at your restaurant job under any of the eight categories, you can file an inquiry on the EEOC’s website which will start the investigation process. Their public portal (which does require you to make an account) will guide you through the initial intake process and there are helpful pdf’s for each step of the inquiry.
The EEOC’s role is to investigate claims of discrimination; they aim to fairly and accurately assess the allegations in the charge and then make a finding. If they find that discrimination has occurred, they will try to settle the charge.
As with any investigation, if you file an inquiry and the EEO Counselor decides to pursue your claim, they will want to see some sort of documentation. You don’t have to come with everything the second you file, but it is helpful to have everything ready to go. The best practice is to keep everything (this could include screenshots!) that could help your case.
Eventually, they might also contact your employer. While this can be super scary, you are protected against any retaliation. It would be wise to continue to document any instances of discrimination and/or retaliation. However, retaliation is often even more clear than the harassment, so this should make it less scary.
It’s important to note that while this process takes time and can be emotionally exhausting, it can also be a major personal achievement.
There’s a legal element to exercising your rights of course, and the law is not perfect; it’s reactive, not proactive. But there’s also a human element. The EEO Counselor is there to listen to you. There’s an entire federal agency dedicated to protecting your dignity. You have to do what you feel safe doing, but filing can be a way to keep yourself safe. And while it’s intimidating and takes a lot of courage, going through the process can be VERY empowering. It’s totally unfair that this whole process falls on you to take action, but you are worth it. You will learn so much about your rights and hopefully, teach your coworkers too.
And while the EEO Counselor will listen to you, you can listen to your coworkers too if they speak up about any workplace discrimination. Organizing around targeted discrimination is a great way to realize collective power in the workplace.
When we organize, we aren’t just securing our rights, we’re doing it for future generations too. It’s the same idea with filing an EEOC complaint; it protects future workers and ensures their right to a workplace free from discrimination and harassment.
Together we can learn our rights and fight back against discrimination in the restaurant industry.
Restaurant kitchens are hot even on a cool day, and as the temperatures rise, so does the need for building worker power to combat excessive indoor heat.
In 2022 ROC collected over 500 responses about excessive heat from restaurant workers across all 50 states and Puerto Rico. We found that heat in restaurant kitchens frequently is dangerously high, and its effects are often unmitigated by employers. Restaurant workers described alarmingly hot working conditions resulting in heat exhaustion, heat stroke, sudden fainting, vomiting, affected cognitive abilities, exacerbated or new long-term health problems, and dehydration. They also spoke about measures employers could take to mitigate these dangers, but they do not do so routinely.
But don’t just take our word for it, hear from the worker’s themselves:
“The heat during the summer would get so bad that temps inside the shop could hit triple digits. Frosting would slide off doughnuts on the rack. Team members passed out with such frequency that it was just considered inevitable,” said a worker in Oregon.
Another worker in Virginia added, “I’m only 19 and in [good] health. But, almost daily, I just feel sick to my stomach from the heat, to the point where I haven’t had the appetite to eat. I’ve even thrown up mid-shift due to the conditions.”
In Montana, Stephen H. recounted,“I have personally watched people have heat stroke in restaurant lines due to extreme heat. I have become physically ill and vomited during periods of extreme heat. Severe dehydration is commonplace and a known fact of life for kitchen workers, and it is wrong.”
The toll on worker’s health doesn’t stop the grueling pace of kitchen work, as Jane C. described, “the line cook next to me fainted from the heat. We stepped over his body to cook during the lunch rush.”
When restaurant workers get hurt at work, they often don’t have insurance to cover their medical needs. As of 2018, about 38% of cooks and 47% of dishwashers did not receive health insurance from their employer. This leaves workers more vulnerable to financial catastrophe from injuries and illnesses caused by on-the-job heat and increases the likelihood that an easily treatable condition will progress to a more serious illness or death.
Many back-of-house workers who responded to our request for comments described working in kitchens where there was no HVAC system, or it was frequently broken in months when AC was needed the most. One worker in Ohio recounted, “last summer the restaurant I worked at didn’t have AC, their solution was to give us Popsicles. A man ended up passing out due to the heat.”
ROC-United sees extreme indoor heat as an equity issue, as the majority of restaurant workers are women and people of color. So what we propose in our report is calling on OSHA to: Seek worker participation and input in decision making, For the heat standard rule to be written in accessible language for kitchen workers, to ensure that workers get enough breaks, that all workers and managers know emergency procedures for heat stroke, require that employers maintain records of all heat related incidents, allow workers to report heat related incidents to OSHA without retaliation, regardless of immigration status, and to restrict licenses to kitchens that do not have the proper ventilation systems built in to create safe working conditions.
To introduce our report on extreme heat and call on OSHA to pass an indoor heat standard, we held a press conference with Asheville Food and Beverage United, Democracy Forward, National COSH and Restaurant Workers United where we heard from restaurant workers and advocates.
“What would help is a temperature standard, working air conditioning units, mandatory set breaks and we don’t have great access to water on the line,” said Ariana, a worker with AFBU.
Arizona restaurant worker Lindsay spelled it out: “We should not have to put our health and safety at risk when we come to work. To have been treated in this way was dangerous and dehumanizing. Regulations around heat exposure would add sorely needed guardrails for an industry that has shown itself incapable of meeting these standards any other way.”
For 31 days straight, Phoenix hit at least 110 degrees Fahrenheit, and the forecast called for 112-plus degree days to return later in the week. This is becoming a common scenario in different parts of the country. “Climate change is affecting everybody, more and more AC units are failing creating more and more dangerous environments across the board,” added Lindsay.
“Every day I get a heat advisory cuz it’s over 100 degrees. Every single day it’s really hot outside, it does seem to be getting worse. This trend is going to continue and if we don’t have standards in kitchens, conditions are going to deteriorate for the workers back there,” said Caleb of RWU.
“It’s an infrastructure problem. [Broken equipment], that’s a cost that owners don’t want to pay for. It’s not a new issue, it’s not having a standard has allowed it to be an issue. Our boss won’t fix our AC because it doesn’t affect the customers in the dining area, where it’s 70 degrees. It’s easily 100 in the kitchen,” said Ariana.
As Elizabeth H. in Texas told us in our survey, “There’s lots of reasons that heat can build up in a kitchen, and it happens all too easily when it’s already 100 degrees outside.
And that’s why worker power is critical to fight against the man-made conditions that contribute to climate change and the increasingly extreme heat felt worldwide. We can bring in all the Gatorade in the world, freeze all the side towels and eat all the popsicles, but ultimately, we must pass regulations to mandate an indoor heat standard and fight climate change.
“Workers need to be supported when they speak up and that’s our mission, to make sure workers are heard and part of the process,” said Teofilo Reyes of ROC-United.
In addition to an indoor heat standard, we also need the Asuncíon Valdivia Heat Illness, Injury, and Fatality Prevention Act to be passed in Congress. The Act would include paid breaks in cool spaces, limitations on time exposed to heat, and emergency response for workers with heat-related illness. Sign up to email your rep to endorse the Act and turn up the heat on workplace organizing!
Sexual harassment in the restaurant industry is rampant.
More than 70% of female restaurant employees said they have been sexually harassed and half experience sexual harassment on a weekly basis, according to a survey we conducted.
So what can we do? Until we reorganize larger societal power structures, we gotta support each other. We need to listen to those who are being harassed, intervene when appropriate, learn our workplace policies and push for a safer, more respectful workplace.
If you see any sort of harassment happening, bystander intervention is one of the most effective anti-harassment strategies. This is where the 5 D’s come in!
Distract the harasser by getting their attention.
Delegate by involving other coworkers.
Delay the harasser’s advances by stepping in.
Document the harassment and allow the harassed to choose what to do next.
And be Direct! Tell the harasser the joke isn’t funny, the touching is inappropriate or simply to stop whatever it is they’re doing.
If a coworker (or friend or anyone!) confides in you about a harassment incident, listen! This is not a time to make a judgment call; instead, thank them for trusting you. Then, encourage them to report the incident, but respect their decision to not do so. Always check in with them before discussing it with others and follow up with support over the next few days or weeks. And, If the conversation is triggering, conscientiously exit the conversation.
Knowledge is power, sure, but reading up on policies can be exhausting when your mental/emotional attention is elsewhere after a traumatic event. So if someone confides in you, take it upon yourself to learn the workplace policies about reporting sexual harassment and use that to educate others. This can be a way to build solidarity too!
Confiding in someone about an incident is a show of trust. Trust is one of the cornerstones of solidarity. And chances are, if one person is being harassed, others are too. We can work together to address harassment issues and use it as a basis of workplace organizing. But always make sure those who are being harassed are on board; the power balance has already been disrupted, let’s make sure they’re in control of the outcome.
Not every restaurant has an HR representative, so this can make reporting incidents challenging. If there are no policies in place, draft an employee handbook with your coworkers and demand its implementation. If the policies in place are weak, rewrite them to your liking. There’s strength in numbers, so work together to create the outcome you want to see.
And always, center the experience of the person being harassed. It’s up to them to decide to pursue any follow up action. Let them know you’re there to support and take direction.
Addressing sexual harassment can be an actionable, winnable demand made in workplace organizing. We can do this by listening to each other, intervening when appropriate (remember the 5 D’s!) and working together to create a safe and respectful workplace for all.
In the fine dining world, the practice of staging has long been a rite of passage for aspiring chefs and hospitality professionals. The term, derived from the French ‘stagiaire,’ meaning trainee or intern, traditionally involves working unpaid for a period of time in a restaurant kitchen to learn and demonstrate one’s skills. This practice is increasingly criticized for its exploitative nature as it demands uncompensated, rigorous labor. Moreover, it perpetuates economic gatekeeping in fine dining, limiting these roles to those with the means to work without pay.
Throughout my culinary journey, witnessing the exploitative practices in staging and trailing sparked a desire to better the working conditions for all within the industry. Drawing inspirations from my tech background, an idea hit me: Why not create a website where food and drink workers can anonymously, yet openly, share insights about their employers? This led me to create KitchenConfidentials.com, a place where restaurant workers can safely and anonymously share their experiences. With each new piece of knowledge added to KitchenConfidentials.com, it will become exponentially easier to avoid the employers who don’t value their workers and support those that treat their employees fairly!
The History of Staging
Staging has its roots firmly in the regimented brigade system introduced by Georges Auguste Escoffier. Dating back centuries, aspiring chefs would embark on a journey, offering their services in a variety of kitchens, without pay, to master diverse cooking styles and techniques. Drawing upon Escoffier’s military background, this system mirrored the hierarchical structure and discipline of an army regiment, a characteristic still widely prevalent in modern kitchens.
Escoffier’s brigade system, founded on principles of imperialist European practices, structured kitchen staff like a military unit, with each individual assigned specific duties. It was a means to streamline and increase efficiency within the chaotic kitchen environment, but it also marked the onset of many of the labor issues we observe in today’s culinary industry. The culture of unquestioned obedience, prioritizing the needs of the ‘regiment’ – the kitchen – above personal health and well-being, has persisted, creating a work environment that can often be challenging and, at times, detrimental to the individuals working within it.
Ripe for Abuse
Whether in a fine dining establishment or a casual eatery, the practice of ‘staging’ and ‘trailing’ is prevalent, acting as a rite of passage in an industry known for its intense competition and high entry barriers. The practice extends to all corners of the hospitality industry, regardless of the level of prestige. ‘Staging,’ historically a long-term commitment, involves working unpaid in kitchens to gain exposure to different cooking styles and techniques. On the other hand, ‘trailing’ typically involves potential employees working a single unpaid shift as a form of real-time interview. This ‘trial shift’ both tests the skills of the candidate and provides a taste of the restaurant’s work environment. Both are usually unpaid.
Despite the ubiquity of these practices, they pose significant labor issues, often placing aspiring employees in a vulnerable position within a culture that expects work without immediate compensation, starting the workers off from an already exploited place.
In the realm of high-end fine dining, an unseen army of stagiaires may spend countless hours picking herbs, tourne-ing potatoes, and performing other meticulous preparations, mostly unpaid and under harsh conditions. Conversely, even in more laid-back settings, job seekers are asked to prove their worth in the heat of service, working a shift without compensation.
These extended, unpaid hours reflect a culture that demands not only commitment but also an acceptance of exploitation as a rite of passage. This often goes unrecognized by patrons, who are unaware of the significant toll and effort behind each culinary experience, irrespective of the establishment’s prestige.
This practice perpetuates a culture of abuse and overwork in the hospitality industry. It places workers in a vulnerable position, compelling them to tolerate potentially unfair treatment for the sake of learning, opportunity, and getting their foot in the door.
A Shift in Perspective: From Tech to Restaurants
My own journey from the tech industry to restaurant work brought these issues into sharp focus. In tech, where I began my career, the concept of working for free is generally regarded as exploitative. Talent is recognized and compensated accordingly and it should be in the restaurant industry too.
Working in the hospitality industry has been eye-opening. Witnessing the stark contrast in work culture and practices, particularly around staging, was disconcerting. It struck me as an ingrained form of exploitation, masquerading as tradition. It is clear that this antiquated system needs a serious overhaul.
The Inspiration Behind KitchenConfidentials.com
This realization sparked the idea for KitchenConfidentials.com. I envisioned a platform that would empower hospitality workers by giving them the information they needed to make informed decisions about their careers. So I created a space for workers to anonymously share their experiences. By bringing transparency to the industry, I believe we can change the narrative and challenge the status quo.
KitchenConfidentials.com is my contribution to making the restaurant industry a better place. It’s a space where workers can read and write reviews about employers, understand the realities of different workplaces, and make choices based on real experiences, rather than promises. It’s a space where your voice matters, where your experiences count, and where we believe in creating a fairer, more equitable industry.
The practice of staging and unpaid labor is deeply entrenched, but that doesn’t mean it’s unchangeable. By sharing our experiences and raising our collective voices, we can challenge these outdated traditions. We can shape an industry where opportunity doesn’t come at the expense of fair treatment or pay. Together, we can create a hospitality industry that truly values its most important ingredient: its people.
We know you know what it’s like working in a hot restaurant. Ovens blasting. Heat lamps on high. Open flames at the grill and saute station. Heat radiating off of the fry station. Barely functioning air conditioning. Blazing hot patios with no shade. The sometimes unbearable working conditions of restaurants are unfortunately all too common. And it’s no wonder that thousands of restaurant workers each year suffer from heat illness.
Heat illness is also preventable, and we can take care of each other by sharing this information with our coworkers. The best ways to prevent heat illness are by taking frequent breaks in cooler/shaded areas, staying hydrated and most importantly, recognizing the signs of heat illness.
However, the working conditions in restaurants often make these basic prevention steps impossible; your boss might not fix the AC this summer or allow you to take breaks. That’s why it’s imperative that restaurant workers recognize the signs of heat illness so we can take care of each other. Signs of heat illness include headache, nausea, dizziness, weakness, irritability, confusion, thirst and heavy sweating. If you notice a coworker seems faint, weak and/or confused, guide them towards a cooler area (like the walk-in or even just off the line), encourage them to take small sips of cold water (FOH’s help would be great here) and apply a cool compress to their pulse points (yes, you can sacrifice one of your towels for this).
If it happens to one worker, it will probably happen to others. When excessive heat becomes an ongoing problem, it might be time to talk to your coworkers about forming a heat squad.
Heat Squads are two or more workers who serve as a voluntary organizing committee to address extreme heat in the workplace. The Squad has two purposes: to teach their coworkers about the signs of heat illness and prevention; and to work with their coworkers to create a list of demands to deliver to the boss that address extreme heat. As part of the educational campaign, the Heat Squad would also monitor the physical working conditions, such as by taking the ambient temperature on the line or on the patio, or by making sure everyone has access to cool water.
Check out our heat awareness page for materials to get started forming a Heat Squad at your restaurant. We made a palm card you can print out and share with your coworkers and you can even talk to an organizer if you have any questions.
Excessive heat affects both houses in the restaurant, and can be an effective organizing demand. Talk to your coworkers about the working conditions and most importantly, what you can do about it. Organizing demands addressing extreme heat could be fixing broken air conditioning or HVAC systems, creating systems for taking breaks, adding patio umbrellas or providing hats for workers working outside, creating access to cool water for all workers, mandating heat illness prevention training and drafting plans to address a heat emergency. Once you and your coworkers have agreed on your demands, take it to the boss in a letter and have a clear plan for escalation if they don’t respond. Read more about demand letters here.
Another avenue workers can take is contacting OSHA to file a complaint. And while standards for indoor heat protections for workers don’t yet exist on a federal level, OSHA is working to develop and implement them nationwide. In the meantime, workers can realize their collective power by working together to create safer workplaces, including by recognizing the signs of heat illness and making demands to mitigate extreme heat.
Let’s turn up the heat on worker-led organizing! Cuz what’s cooler than worker power?
Bars are considered a “third place,” where we can find and build community. It’s a place that feels like home, where we can converse and feel a sense of belonging. These third places don’t just pop up out of nowhere; the community is ultimately built by the workers.
For the gay community in the 1950s and 1960s, gay bars were where you could go and be yourself, even if it was just for an evening. You could find community, friendship and love. And while not everyone who worked at a gay bar would identify as such, the workers still contributed to creating a safe(r) space. Someone was there pouring the drinks, welcoming patrons and in some cases, fostering that sense of belonging.
Gay bars were sacred to some, but considered deviant by many. They were subjected to police raids and harassment. Workers would warn the patrons of incoming police by flicking the lights, using code words or otherwise alerting folks. Bar workers could get swept up by the police, and when the gay liberation movement started, workers were part of it. As it gained steam, bars were an integral space for planning and celebrating. When the AIDS crisis hit, gay bars became a space for public mourning and information sharing, which was particularly important as the government and the hetero population stood idly by.
Gay liberation took many forms, from riots to legal battles, but bars were central to the movement. In the mid 20th century, gay bars were subjected to discriminatory laws and often those laws were used to shut down the bars on the authority of a state’s liquor board. State laws varied from ruling that liquor licenses couldn’t be denied based on the clientele to an extreme seen in Miami in 1967, when a law was passed that prohibited the issuance of liquor licenses to anyone who “employed a homosexual,” which put bar workers in the area at serious risk for being out. The law even prohibited granting a license to an establishment that allowed two or more homosexuals to congregate on the premises, effectively outlawing gay bars.
State-by-state, patchwork laws slowly marched towards change, but on the streets a different story was being told.
Police harassment was widespread, and patrons and workers began to fight back to protect themselves and their gathering spaces. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, gay bars and other third places were the sites of resistance, like at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco, Cooper’s Do-nuts in downtown Los Angeles, Julius’s in New York City and Dewey’s in Philadelphia. The Tavern Guild was formed in San Francisco by bar owners and liquor wholesalers to help fight against the police harassment of gay bars and their patrons. They formed an alliance, warning each other of raids, and even set up a loan fund for Guild members that were left unemployed due to police raids and shutdowns, making sure Guild bartenders stayed employed.
In the mid-60 to late 60s, change was in the air. On New Year’s Eve 1966 in Silverlake, California at the Black Cat Tavern, undercover cops beat and arrested revelers for public displays of affection, including two bartenders and the owner. Weeks later, hundreds of patrons and their intersectional supporters staged a series of pickets denouncing the LAPD’s brutality and in doing so, became one of the first organized LGBTQ+ demonstrations. And a few miles south at The Patch, a gay bar that had been warned by LAPD to stop drag shows and same sex fraternizing, was raided. In the middle of the raid, owner Lee Glaze leapt up on the bar and yelled “It’s not against the law to be homosexual and it’s not a crime to be in a gay bar!” He then promised to bail out everyone who was arrested and led a cohort to the nearest flower shop. They bought out all the flowers and showed up at the precinct to protest, peacefully. This led to the creation of The Metropolitan Community Church, the first LGBTQ+ congregation of its kind.
But not all raids ended peacefully. A year later, the Riot at Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York City changed the course of history. The patrons had enough and refused to submit to the identification checks by the NYPD. A crowd formed outside the bar, employees were loaded into police wagons, and a fight broke out. The patrons formed a can-can kick line as the cops retreated that first night and even though skirmishes went on for days, the night of June 28, 1969 has lived on in the years since as Pride Parades march in cities each June.
This also paved the way for actions such as the Coors Beer boycott. In the 70s, Coors was subjecting new hires to a polygraph test which allowed them to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals. The queer community, at the urging of the first openly gay elected official in San Francisco, Harvey Milk, joined other activist groups and Unions, like the Teamsters, who were already boycotting Coors’ other discriminatory policies. This forged a link between queer and class identities, as Milk continued to work with the Teamsters to bring openly gay members into the Union and use their political power to advocate for both queer and working class people. Coors is still not welcome in many gay bars.
Around the same time, in response to homophobic and baseless statements by the spokeswoman for Florida Citrus, Anita Bryant, gay bars refused to serve orange juice and instead served The Anita Bryant Cocktail, which swapped apple juice for orange juice in Screwdrivers.
The ability to withhold capital cemented queer communities’ political power. Workers have the same power in their labor, which they can also withhold to demand change in the workplace.
When workers have a sense of belonging and a voice on the job, restaurants and bars can be a haven. But without workers, there is no third place. When we realize our power is held in our labor, we can leverage that to hold employers accountable. When owners pride-wash or capitalize on the space without sharing resources, we as workers can raise our voices and demand better not just for ourselves, but for our community as well. And while bars, restaurants and cafes remain bound to the shackles of capitalism, we as workers can realize our collective struggle and create spaces for all to belong. The workers make the space, and we can make space for everyone.
At this point, you’ve realized there’s issues in your workplace. You’ve talked to your coworkers about it, and you’re ready to do….something! Consensus is needed to move forward and to do that, you need to have a clear plan to escalate to direct action.
Direct action is the use of public forms of protest to achieve a workplace victory. For example, you and your coworkers are discussing wages and realize that your manager is skimming tips. You could then draft a demand letter to present to management outlining the charges, suggesting an alternative tip pool structure and demanding your money back. If management does not respond to the letter, you could escalate the action to a social media campaign to involve the community and put more pressure on the boss. If management still does not respond, you could take it one step further and contact a union representative to start the path to unionization.
Obviously, there is a risk involved in doing this, but know it’s a federally protected right. The National Labor Review Board enforces the National Labor Relations Act, which is a law that was passed in 1935 to protect worker’s rights to collectively bargain, organize and otherwise take action in the workplace to improve working conditions. That last part is referred to as “protected concerted activity” and writing a demand letter is a great example.
Beyond a demand letter, there are so many options for realizing collective power in the workplace; but whatever you choose, you must discuss and decide what steps to take ***as a group***. Having a plan that you discuss in advance allows everyone to be heard, to consent and to act.
So how do you do it?
First, do a gut check. And not just about the issues, but about what your larger goals are and what’s going on in your world outside of work; ask yourself if you’re going to be able to show up for your coworkers as your best self. Then reflect on what’s the biggest issue at work and how you’d like to see it resolved.
Next, you’re going to need to feel out the issues with your coworkers. Start by asking leading questions about the issue, then by asking more open-ended questions that allow your coworker to come up with solutions. Be discreet, listen more than you talk and be a good coworker; all of this builds trust and ultimately, solidarity. Also, you don’t have to talk to folks who are obviously not on board and of course, don’t involve management at this point.
For the folks who are ready to act, utilize their strengths and respect their comfort levels. Maybe someone is great at spelling and writing, but doesn’t want to be public about organizing; perhaps they can help draft the demand letter. If someone is really comfortable talking to the boss, maybe they physically hand the letter over.
Once you’ve collectively figured out what the issues are and who’s going to be involved, it’s time to take action. Start by writing a demand letter. Introduce yourselves, outline the issues, suggest a solution and set a deadline for management to respond by. Write and deliver this letter collectively, but not before coming up with a clear path for what to do after.
After you deliver your demand letter, management can either come to the table and work out a solution or they can ignore/stall/flat out refuse to negotiate. This is when you can escalate your campaign.
Social media can be a great way to get your community involved and put more pressure on the boss. Introduce the workers who are comfortable being in the public eye, outline your demands and keep community members updated on any actions they can take. You can have community members sign a petition that restates your demands (use your initial demand letter as a template!). You can have community members stage a comment zap where they flood the businesses’ Yelp pages echoing your demands. Get creative!
And always have a plan for your next step. Think of it as a choose-your-own-adventure! Plus, you just feel better when you have a plan; it’s like a prep list that you all made together. For example, If the saute station needs diced onions but the prep cook doesn’t know about it in advance, it creates chaos. When the prep list is communicated however, we start to trust each other and can begin to work collectively.
Workers have the power (and federally protected right) to address workplace issues collectively. When we work together, we can make all voices heard.
If you’re confused by your workplace’s service charge structure, you’re probably not alone. Talk to your coworkers and see if they are having similar issues. This can be an excellent topic to organize around; the service charge ostensibly affects both houses as FOH has an added layer of friction/responsibility and BOH might not be actually getting that extra 5% each paycheck.
A quick refresher on tips: Tips are paid at the discretion of the customer, at an amount determined by the customer given to employees directly involved in service. This is law according to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA); it also says managers cannot be in the tip pool (if not directly involved in service). Service charges/fees are NOT tips, and since they are considered revenue, they are not subjected to the FLSA or any other regulations. Auto-gratuity is a type of service charge, and therefore also not a tip, so it’s not regulated either (the IRS changed this rule in 2014).
How can you tell the difference? Tips are discretionary, service charges are not; if a restaurant is charging a fixed percentage, the customer is a)not able to determine if they pay it or b)the amount they pay.
For all restaurant workers, this means that any auto-gratuity (i.e. on a private dining event or any flat charge on the bill) is not a tip and does not have to be distributed to the employees. The same goes for service fees; your restaurant may say that a percentage is going to healthcare, but since it’s not a tip, it counts as revenue for the business and they can do whatever they want with that money.
There’s no price on accountability, but we can demand transparency. Restaurant workers can also use service charges as an organizing demand. In the same way you want to know how the tips are distributed, demand to know where the service charges go. If you and your coworkers aren’t feeling the whole idea of a service charge, demand a raise instead. Organizing is a great tool for holding bosses accountable. Sure, money talks, but bullsh*t walks (to the computer to write a demand letter with their coworkers).
For back-of-house workers who weren’t traditionally included in a tip pool, service charges can be an attractive option. But since the service charge isn’t subjected to any regulation, there’s no rule saying the boss has to pay it to you. This is where checking your paystub could be helpful to see if the service charge is getting added on top of your base wage.
For FOH workers, service charges often mean more work for less money. There’s the added friction of answering customers’ questions without having concrete answers. And there’s the possibility that customers will not tip on top of the service charge.
For diners, make sure to know all of the above. Service charges generally lead to a lot of confusion and frustration, but think of the staff that have to deal with this. As an informed customer, you should know that most restaurant workers are not making a living wage, that tips often do not go to the cooks, probably no one working has employer-provided health insurance and they’re probably all very, very tired of dealing with this. Without any oversight, it’s impossible to tell where these service charges are going; asking your server tableside is might not be a great idea, as they are surveilled by management or they could fear it would jeopardize their tip (aka their livelihood). Instead, treat it on a case-by-case basis, err on the side of caution, treat your server with respect and if you want the charge removed from the bill, ask the manager.
As diners, you can be an ally and advocate for things like raising the minimum wage, not tying healthcare to employment and by supporting the Restaurant Worker Bill of Rights. You can also do some research before going out; Google, Twitter and local subReddits (like this spreadsheet via r/losangeles!) can be great resources. If you have industry friends, ask them too! If a worker says something isn’t right, trust them.
And truly, the simplest answer here would be for restaurant owners to pay a living wage.
Chinese restaurants are an integral part of America’s dining culture. How did they become so widespread and what has it been like for the workers?
A wave of immigration from South China started in the 1840s, mainly to the San Francisco Bay Area by laborers and businessmen lured by the burgeoning Gold Rush. At the same time, the Transatlantic Railroad was being built. Many Chinese immigrants took jobs as laborers for the railroad companies; as the railroads were built from the coasts to the center of the US, the workers followed.
From this backbreaking and often unfairly compensated labor, small economic centers emerged that catered to the immigrant workforce, including, you guessed it, Chinese restaurants. In fact, the oldest continually operating Chinese restaurant, Pekin Noodle Parlor, was founded in 1909 in Butte, Montana.
Railroad work was difficult and the white business owners created many lasting racist stereotypes of Chinese workers. When an economic downturn hit the US in the late 1870s, white Industrialists and even some union leaders turned their frustration towards immigrant workforces, specifically targeting Chinese workers.
In one of the more stunning examples of legislative White supremacy in the United States, these groups lobbied Congress to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act on May 6, 1882. This law prohibited any Chinese laborers from immigrating or sponsoring relatives for immigration. However in 1915, immigrants could claim “merchant status,” which included restaurant owners. This led to a proliferation of Chinese restaurants, especially in New York City. The number of Chinese restaurants quadrupled from 1910 to 1920, and then doubled again over the next decade.
The workers in these restaurants were often family members of the owners. This, alongside the racist stereotype that Chinese workers would do hard physical labor for cheap, led to a litany of labor abuses. The average employee in the 1920s earned 1/3 less wages than the national average for food service employees at the time. In addition to low wages and long hours, Chinese restaurant workers also endured race riots, union-led boycotts and institutionalized racism.
In 1943, in an effort to maintain military dominance worldwide and create a strategic alliance with Eastern countries during World War II, the United States ended the Act. It was officially repealed in 1965. This led to a flourishing of grand dim sum halls in large cities and mom and pop restaurants in towns across the US. With this expansion, Chinese cuisine adapted to American tastes to become its own unique expression of time and place. While often exotic-ized and pigeon-holed, Americans’ appetite for Chinese food grew, and in the years that followed, it cemented itself in the canon of diasporic cooking in the US, all while being subjected to the myth of cooking as unskilled labor.
By the 1970s, the workers of the Silver Palace in New York City’s Chinatown had enough. Fed up with unpaid wages, stolen tips, long hours and disrespect, they decided to unionize. In an impressive public display of worker power, they walked out and staged a series of theatrical protests. The waiters were fired, but persisted in their fight for justice.
In 1979, they won the first contract for Chinese restaurant workers in the United States, and with it overtime pay, a forty-hour workweek and health care. All of the workers were rehired.
However, the workers felt that the union allowed contract violations and was generally unresponsive to their needs. So, the workers of Local 318 created the Chinese Staff and Workers Association in 1980. They have since successfully organized other restaurants in Chinatown and expanded to other industries, like garment centers, and advocated for workers in industries like nail salons.
Today they continue to support documented and undocumented immigrant workers. They pursue wage theft cases and have won back over $50 million for workers. They advocate for legislative justice, including the first raising of the tipped minimum wage in a decade and winning a precedent-setting legal decision prohibiting employers from stealing tips.
One of the reasons for their success is because they include the Chinatown community at-large. In response to larger questions around gentrification, they fought to maintain two unemployment offices with language-appropriate services in Chinatown. They have also worked with other community partners to create a treatment and screening program for workers and neighbors affected by the toxic air after the devastating 9/11 attacks, which happened blocks from their neighborhood.
The grassroots solidarity built amongst immigrant workers of the CSWA is inspiring and deserving of recognition. This May, during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, ROC wants to uplift the many immigrant workers who make up the backbone of restaurant labor and celebrate the workers who spoke up for themselves and others in the name of worker justice.
Oh and it wasn’t until 2012 that the US House of Representatives formally apologized for the Chinese Exclusion Act.
It was Summer 2019 and I had never been more broke. I was working two bartending jobs in Los Angeles when a coworker referred me to a third gig; it was with a catering company that promised same-day pay, great tips, and flexibility. It seemed like a great money-making opportunity. However, it wasn’t long before I noticed the red flags.
My first night, I discovered a nightmare come true; every single event was chaos, riddled with harassment and verbal abuse from the owner. We endured hostile working conditions, shortened breaks, stolen tips, and no overtime. We did this all while pouring drinks until 4am for partygoers engulfed in a world of privilege where the word “No” held no value.
The end of the night was often the hardest. As the guests stumbled out to their luxury cars, I would sit and talk with my coworkers. We shared that when we were humiliated by our boss, it led us to feel like our humanity was ignored. Snapping his fingers, berating us, forcing us to keep working through our breaks – “You’ll eat later! You’re here to work.” The message was clear – our needs didn’t matter. We didn’t know it yet, but those late night chats were not only triaging our feelings and holding space for each other, but also it set the stage for us to organize and fight back.
Later that summer, I was scheduled to bartend in Hollywood for an organization called Restaurant Opportunities Center United, a nonprofit that supports and advocates for service industry workers. To my surprise, ROC’s executive director, ROC-LA organizers, and Jane Fonda (!!) teamed up on stage to speak the truth about the state of the restaurant industry. They talked about the inherently unethical treatment of workers and pervasive issues like unsafe working conditions and wage theft.
Although I was stationed behind a bar in the back corner of the room, I felt as if I had a front-row seat. I felt seen by their words of affirmation and validation. I felt like there was a light that was already blinking red with warning signs. There were late payments, missing tips, events would carry on for ten hours without breaks and the harassment from the boss was getting worse. Tensions were brewing and I was reaching a great precipice. I had to decide whether to stand and fight or take flight.
I was ready to fight.
A few days later, I hadn’t been paid. My text messages requesting my paycheck went unanswered. I felt deeply alone. As I reflected on those late night talks with my coworkers, I felt compelled to call them to see if they were missing their paychecks too.
Well, all nine of them were!
Fortunately, I had connected with ROC organizers at the event and collected their business cards. Before we knew it, we were all sitting in a North Hollywood coffee shop, organizing our workplace. We unanimously decided to execute a cooperative effort to campaign against our employer. We were going to demand our hourly wages, tips, overtime and missed breaks.
Our first step was to collectively write a demand letter. We demanded better working conditions and wages owed. Our goal was to get everyone paid as quickly as possible.
We were ignored.
The message was clear, once again – our needs didn’t matter. Armed with the guidance and support from ROC, we were ready to escalate our campaign by filing complaints with the Los Angeles Labor Department to get our money back.
But before my coworkers and I filed, we had a group call with our former employer to mediate our case, expressing our concerns and demanding to be paid what we were owed. When he didn’t respond, we showed up to one of his scheduled events and formed a picket line where the guests pulled into the parking lot with their Mercedes’. They were close enough to see us with our signs, our truth, and our angry, determined faces.
During our campaign, we had collected proof: documentation including time-stamped emails, text messages and photos, and testimony that we would include with our complaints after he didn’t respond to any of our demands… and even then, nothing!
By March of 2020, we received word from the LA Labor Commissioner’s Office that our case was approved to be heard in court, where they eventually ruled in our favor in a landslide victory! When the judge hammered down the gavel, she ordered him to pay me $6,000 in back wages, break and overtime violations, fees, and waiting time penalties. We had taken action numerous times as a collective to demand our wages, and I believe that made our case even stronger.
The following advice is for workers who have had their boss steal from them:
Acquire a small notebook or use the Notes app on your smartphone
Take notes of exact dates, hours worked, how you were paid, the key players (bosses), shifts worked, etc. These are all of the key pieces that help tell the story. Keep this notebook safe and out of sight from management. I always recommend keeping it in your car and filling out your notes immediately after your shift, while it’s still fresh in your mind. Document everything you witnessed with your OWN eyes. Remember that hearsay and gossip can really cloud the investigation, so while it is important to name witnesses in your notes, remember to primarily focus on your own lived experience.
Talk to your Coworkers
Under the NLRA (National Labor Relations Act), employees have the right to communicate with other employees about their workplace and about their wages. You can have discussions about wages when not at work, on your break, and outside of work before or after your shift. The NLRB claims that you can discuss wages during work, so long as employees are permitted to have non-work conversations. That isn’t a safe bet, but if you really want to know if it’s allowed, it’s always good to check the employee handbook.
If your employer is stealing from you, it’s likely that it’s happening to your co-workers too. It is your right to discuss working conditions with your coworkers. It can be an exercise that ultimately leads people to organize towards a common goal, especially if the boss doesn’t respond to your attempts to mediate the situation.
Talk to the Boss
If you’re thinking about pursuing a wage case, here’s a quick piece of advice before you start: Both Federal and State Department of Labor agencies want to see that workers have first attempted to communicate their issues to their boss in an attempt to resolve their workplace issues before filing a complaint.
At the end of the day, it’s your money and you have every right to fight for your wages. It’s also the right to care for yourself. If we think of self-care as a set of behaviors to ensure holistic well being, well that includes your bank account too. Working for a disrespectful boss can take its toll too, so, how is fighting for your rights or pursuing justice not self-care? Taking action in your workplace is your legal right. If your employer is stealing your wages or you’re facing unsafe working conditions, it should also make you mad!
Mad can get us started, but documentation will get us over the finish line. Use this anger to fuel your fight for justice, but temper it with the long game of collecting evidence, good record keeping and solidarity amongst your coworkers.
At this point, you’re ready to take action. So, this is how you file a federal wage theft complaint.
First, you’ll need:
– Your contact info
– Name and address of the business where you work
– The names of managers or owners to whom the investigator should speak to
– Records of all hours worked, including clock in/out, time breaks were taken, total hours and days worked
– And finally, you want to include pay stub information or a record (could just be you writing it down!) of how and when you were paid
Then, you’ll go to the Wage & Hour Division (WHD) section of the Department of Labor’s website.
The first few steps are very straightforward: names, phone numbers, etc. But Step 8 can be confusing! You, as a restaurant worker, should choose “Private Sector: Other.” Don’t worry about the other choices. For Step 9, we’re talking wage theft, so we’re going to choose “wages.” Step 10 is where we give a brief description of the wage theft; for instance, we could say
“I was supposed to get my paycheck on April 7, but as of April 18, I still don’t have it. I am owed $526.78. I also suspect the tip pool isn’t being calculated properly. I have print-outs of the nightly tip report going back to February 2023, as well as all my time cards for the time of my employment (October 2022). I have records of my previous pay stubs as well.”
Double check that everything is entered correctly. This is also why we advise to gather everything in advance. The actual filing part is pretty simple and shouldn’t take you too long. Honestly, you’ll probably spend more time collecting your documents! Keep the documentation in a safe place, as you’ll need it later during the investigation.
And we should note that if you don’t have every single piece of information, you should go ahead and file anyway.
Also, if you prefer to call, you can also dial 1-866-487-9243.
Either way, the WHD will work with you to answer your questions and determine whether an investigation is the best course of action. If they choose to investigate your claim, they will then review your information, reach out to you for an interview, then they will contact your employer. You can ask to remain anonymous at any time. After reviewing both sides, they will reach a decision.
This seems like a lot, but the initial filing is simple. And know, you are not alone in the fight. You have rights and there’s a whole group of people dedicated to enforcing them. The WHD is dedicated to enforcing laws that protect workers. They do this by enacting regulations that prohibit retaliation, harassment, intimidation or the taking of adverse action against employees for:
– Inquiring about their pay, hours of work or other rights
– Asserting their worker rights
– Filing a complaint about their worker rights
– Cooperating with a WHD investigation
You are protected against retaliation for filing a wage theft complaint. But you do have to take action first.
Reach out for advice today, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Hello! My name is Katherine Coker and I’m the guest blogger for this week’s blog post. For those that don’t know me, I’ve generated a TikTok following exposing my former employer for wage theft that now has over 1,000 followers. I’ve also had the privilege to highlight wage theft with CBS and GlensideLocal.com to increase public awareness on this rampant issue in the restaurant industry. I’ve been grateful to partner with ROC in helping to increase public awareness outside of TikTok and pressure powerful entities to get involved in order to get workers paid.
I moved to Philadelphia in April 2022 for a full-time 9-to-5 gig but quickly realized: 1. Moving is expensive AF and 2. I needed some extra funds in my life (see #1). Therefore, I hit the streets of my local neighborhood, Manayunk, in search of a job waiting tables. Serving was something I had done in the past so I knew I could pick it up quickly. Plus it offered lots of flexibility, and I could get to know my new community better.
I landed a job at a local restaurant called Bernie’s located right on Main Street. Bernie’s served casual, American fare, had a popular brunch and was perfect for what I needed. I started working there in May 2022 and really enjoyed the staff and customers. However, what was originally a perfect side hustle quickly turned into blasting the owner on TikTok for wage theft and generating over 60,000 views in about 48 hours. Wild, right?
I want to be clear that while this case escalated quickly, I did not make the decision to call out my employer on TikTok immediately or lightly. We had been at odds for two weeks. By the time I made the decision to post, I felt that there was no other course of action that would spur the owner to do what is legally (and morally) right – pay myself and other workers wages that he had stolen.
So, what happened?
As I mentioned, I started working in May and by the end of June I encountered my first major red flag. (Looking back there were lots of other small red flags, but stay tuned for that content on ROC’s socials). Friday, June 24 was payday and my check did not arrive. It ended up arriving on Monday, June 27.I tried to brush the late check off as a one-time occurrence.
Two weeks later on July 8, I realized I was very wrong. My check did not arrive again.
In July, the manager did not have a timeline of when I could expect to be paid. After one week of following up with my manager every day regarding my check, I informed him that I would no longer be reporting for my scheduled shifts until I was paid my missing wages. That’s right, I staged a one-woman work stoppage. I went on strike!
(Now, I want to take a short detour in the story and offer a disclaimer: I was not as knowledgeable of my rights then as I am now. I had no idea what the end result was going to be in regards to my strike. I had the privilege of a full time 9-to-5 gig that paid my bills so I could afford to not give any f’s. I recognize that that is not always the case. However, I want to emphasize that striking for unfair labor practices is protected action and you cannot legally be fired for this. But anyways…).
The first action I took was to express my discontent. I regularly followed up, mostly through text messages since those are written and can be saved, and then I decided to go on strike. After striking for one week, another payday arrived on July 22. Not only did management not have my first check, but my check owed on that payday didn’t arrive either. At this point, the last check I had received was on June 27, roughly four weeks prior. I was owed about $500, but many of my co-workers were owed much more.
I then learned that the entire restaurant had decided to go on strike.
Management informed the owner of Bernie’s that until workers were paid, we would not be returning to work. That same day, another Bernie’s location in the suburbs of Philly, Glenside went on strike. The difference? They put a note on the door informing customers they were on strike for unfair labor practices and were paid in full three hours later.
*Light bulb moment* Public awareness of wage theft spurred the owner to pay workers.
By Monday, July 25, no checks had arrived and there was no firm timeline on when anyone could expect to receive their stolen wages. This was the moment that I decided to escalate the situation and put it on TikTok.
- Following up every day did not spur action, even though I had receipts in the form of text messages
- Personal strike did not spur action
- Restaurant-wide strike without public awareness did not spur action
- Restaurant-wide strike at another location with public awareness did spur action
To be bluntly honest, I had no idea if posting on TikTok would do anything. I am not an influencer or content creator. I had no followers and no reason to believe that this would work. The algorithm simply worked in my favor. My video got pushed out to the local community, as well as onto the feeds of many workers from other restaurant locations owned by the same person, generating about 60K views in 48 hours.
So, what happened? I got a text message the following day from the owner letting me know that my wages were being delivered to the restaurant that day. It took several more days for the rest of the employees at that restaurant to get paid but in the end, everyone received their money.
I want to emphasize that exposing the owner on TikTok did not solve the wage theft issue completely. It worked for that one instance. However, it is still an ongoing problem at his restaurants. But I’ve been fortunate that since my public campaign has brought this issue to light, it created media attention, as well as spurred some action by government agencies.
A lot has happened since July 2022. I believe without a doubt that had I been fighting this battle quietly, this issue would not have gotten the attention that it has to date and I know that I would not have been paid when I was had I not exposed the owner publicly.
The moral of this story?
- Map out a plan for escalation.
- Try to mediate with your employer first.
- Do a risk assessment – are you willing to leave if things get messy?
- Carefully assess your coworkers – there is power in numbers.
- Gather documentation (texts, shift review receipts, screenshots from your scheduling app)
- It’s important to have evidence to back up your claims
- Know your rights (your employer may try to fire you even though this action is illegal)
- Prepare for pushback from other employees
- Get your money!
Your employer only holds power over you if you let them. By taking action, knowing your rights and letting them know you won’t accept illegal behavior, you reinforce your position of power and decrease their perceived power over you. Take action, stand up for yourself and get that bread.
Chef Nik R. Cole, a 18 year restaurant veteran working in Detroit has done it all. Front-of-house, back-of-house, restaurants, teaching and volunteering at COTS Detroit and Marygrove College, and now running a pop-up, Fried Chicken & Caviar. “It’s cool to see how my career has evolved and turned into something I’ve really made for myself.”
Making her way in kitchens as (often the only) Black woman has taught Chef Nik alot about what it means to belong. “There’s been moments where men I team up with don’t call me chef; they call me babe, or don’t even think I’m the chef because I’m a little Black woman, I don’t like it one bit. But there are moments where we kill service or they ask me to collaborate that feels good. They recognize that I belong here.”
As a successful Black woman chef, Chef Nik has made it a priority to bring up other Black women alongside her. “My biggest thing is, when I’m in someone else’s kitchen, is to bring someone with me. I want to leave someone too. That’s been a high point for me.”
“In Detroit, I love that we are big on collaboration! Collaborating with people that have different skill sets, I feel like I never stop learning,” she said. And she advises other Black women working in kitchens to take every opportunity to learn too. “Use it to your advantage; your skillset will speak for you before you even say anything.”
Navigating the back-of-house space can be difficult, emotionally and physically. For Chef Nik, respect is of the utmost importance. “You know, there’s salacious conversations, like, masculine conversations, and while we’re diversifying the space, we aren’t all cut from the same cloth. If it bothers or offends someone, let’s make the space as comfortable for everyone as we can.” For women in particular, her advice is to be direct. “If you don’t appreciate it, say something.”
And sometimes, that something we have to say is, help! “I am little, and I am mighty,” she says with a grin. So maybe sometimes she can’t reach something on the top shelf of the walk-in. And that’s ok, she can ask for help. She applies this approach to Detroit in general, where she has built up partnerships with other chefs. “I have alliances that I can lean on. If I need peers, I can hop into someone’s kitchen, or they can hop into mine. Or if I need an onion, or if something breaks, I can call someone.”
“I can be successful, and lend the same thing to them,” she says when asked about how to define success. The alliances she’s built create a network of support. But for the industry at large, that support can be lacking. She feels that time off, particularly when you’re sick, is a huge issue. The pandemic brought this issue into the spotlight, and it’s what she would like to see change in kitchen environments.
“I would change the perception that we don’t need to take care of ourselves the same way that other people do. If you’re sick, physically, mentally, or suffering from addiction, as is so big in our industry, all of those things, where we need to take better care of ourselves.”
We can take better care of ourselves by advocating for larger structural changes, such as by signing the Restaurant Worker Bill of Rights, and also by addressing the little things. Chef Nik sees this as another way to show respect to our co-workers. She advises folks to ask each other how they’re doing, to get them a cup of water as a way to extend the hospitality we so often extend to others, yet so often forget to extend to ourselves. She says to “look at your neighbor, and recognize,” which is a beautiful way of framing our workspaces.
We are neighbors, especially when we are standing next to each other for hours at a time. When we can recognize the humanity in each other, such as by letting someone take the day off to spend with their family or when they need a minute to step off the line, we build a foundation of respect.
ROC wishes a Happy Women’s History Month to Chef Nik and all the other mighty women chefs out there!
Below is our featured guest post for Women’s History Month, authored by Delaney McLemore.
As service industry professionals, sex workers and restaurant servers are responsible for the experience of their client within their particular setting. If you take away the setting, though, and focus on unsafe working conditions, harassment, emotional abuse, wage instability (the list goes on), we really are more similar than one might think.
While I would never want to suggest that the real dangers facing sex workers, especially Black trans sex workers, could ever be compared to that faced by restaurant servers, the similarities between the two fields in how we navigate relationships cannot be ignored. Restaurant workers have more resources available to them to report issues such as sexual harassment; they made up 14.2% of claims filed with the EEOC from 2005-2015, the largest group in the study. This of course does not take into account the litany of harassments that go unreported. When your ability to make rent is threatened by your capacity to speak up, it’s no wonder many keep silent.
But especially when we’re comparing the entitlement of wealthy clients or the substance abuse rampant among both industries to the incredible nights that leave you with piles of cash to be counted later and the connections made with clients that feed more than your pocket, there are parallels in each industry that draw our two jobs together rather than putting us at odds.
I’ve been working in restaurants for most of the last twenty years, starting with my family’s diner in Tillamook, Oregon. I remember the first time someone left a tip that was larger than their bill – ten on six – and I cried. I started working in the sex industry when I was nineteen, a failed night as a stripper in my college town. I tried again a couple of years later, lasting a bit longer before realizing I was never going to learn the acrobatic turns of my talented peers. Instead, I met a madam called Shahnaz, a name that means pride of the king that had been bestowed on the white woman named Brittany who ran the tail around Huntington, West Virginia. Under her guidance, I started working as an in-call and out-call escort for hire. My first tip was $300. And I cried.
I am also an academic: I’m currently in the muck of dissertation hours, writing my teaching philosophy, and mentoring sixty students through a semester of college level literary analysis. The first time I saw my paycheck, I cried, because it was not a living wage. In order for me to survive my PhD program financially, I have taken out tens of thousands of dollars in loans… and continued my employment as sometimes a sex worker, sometimes a server.
I think the reasons I stay attached to all of these worlds is, at its core, the same: I am (an admitted) validation addict. In my classroom, student discovery and growth feeds that hunger. In restaurants, tables mete out my value with a concrete measurement of capital. Their satisfaction with my capacity has a number attached to it. The same goes for sex work, with the additional intimacy inherent in sexual exchanges.
This is the thread that ties these two worlds together: when you work as a server or a sex worker, you are exchanging the experience you are capable of creating for the capital available in your guest’s pocket. And especially when we work for tips, we have to run constant calculations about how to maximize our profits and minimize our humanity.
Over time, you learn to measure your audience, gauging in a moment from someone’s appearance the kind of client they will be: what are they wearing? How clean are their shoes? Does their breath smell? Have they been drinking? How much? Do we need more? While the element of safety is of far greater consequence in the vulnerability exchange of sex work, servers too, especially women and nonbinary folks, must measure the risk of every person at a table. A more demanding mom at seat four? If she’s not happy, seat five won’t tip. There will always be bad tables and bad calls, but when it hurts your money, it affects your entire life.
The aftermath of the pandemic is a collective trauma we are all navigating together, but one of the incredible effects we’ve seen is that turn toward the collective. Organizations like ROC gained huge momentum during the pandemic, when the rights of restaurant workers came into sharp relief. We can see the same with movements like the Portland Strippers Strike and the incredible community aid network the organizers created for the displaced and striking workers, or the Star Garden Dancers in Los Angeles, dancers who demanded safety from their employers and now are on the verge of starting the first co-op club in the United States. Collective workers movements are gathering steam in both industries and like with all of the parallels I’ve listed above, this is just another thread connecting our fields.
When we invite the reality of exploitation in restaurants into our understanding, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Of course, it’s easy to look around the field you work within and see trends, see the benefits and rewards and the consequences and failures. Sex workers and tipped restaurant workers are on the same hospitality continuum and we can use this as an opportunity to find connection, to find a bridge between the two industries that would allow our mutual objectives to gain power together.
What would a service industry look like that recognizes sex workers as our peers? As our sisters and siblings in arms? Where the battleground is a dance floor or a private room or the hallway between the kitchen and the table and we are mere foot soldiers? Where the exploitative practices of business owners are acknowledged and rectified? Where harassment laws are enforced? Where health care benefits are available and mental health care is easily accessible?
What could we do if we saw what makes us the same?
Delaney McLemore is a hospitality veteran and current PhD candidate at University of Louisiana, Lafayette.
In the earlier part of the last century, Waitress Union Locals served up justice in the workplace all across the country. They won many municipal legislative battles, fought for equal wages and better working conditions, and ultimately achieved a voice in the workplace. They utilized engaging, creative tactics to galvanize their peers and win the support of the public. The Waitress Union members were crafty and cunning, adept at networking and they did it all with an iconic sense of humor.
It makes sense; when your work is centered around working for tips, you learn what people positively respond to so you can make more money. The high level of empathetic accuracy required for the job translates into organizing skills. All restaurant workers are inherently organizers, and the waitress unions were an example of this. So why did we have waitress unions then and why don’t we have them today?
Waiting tables was (and is sometimes still) viewed as low-skilled woman’s work. Women and men were largely segregated in so-called polite society at the turn of the last century, so women working in bars, hotels or restaurants were interacting with men in a way that non-working women were not. For instance, women needed a male chaperone to do many activities in public. Because hospitality has also long been seen as sex work-adjacent, the insinuation was that waitresses were on the same continuum as sex workers. The lack of respect for their craft from the public spilled over into the workplace, where women were subjected to long hours, huge pay discrepancies and oppressive bosses.
So, in 1900 in Seattle, Alice Lord started the first waitress union. Local 240 was a waitress-only chapter of the larger, predominantly male, Hotel Employees And Restaurant Employees International Union. One of Local 240’s major wins was the so-called “Waitresses Bill,” which established an eight-hour work day for women in the state of Washington. In 1913 they helped win a minimum wage for all women workers in the state, predating the nationwide minimum wage standard by almost five decades. Impressively, they claimed to have fed 30,000 striking workers per day during the city-wide general strike of 1919. Lord expanded their organizing to cities around the state and to other fields where there were lots of women workers.
In addition to being a waitress-only chapter, they were also a white-women-only chapter. The members found camaraderie in their craft identity and recognized the need to advocate for themselves as women, but their lack of intersectionality could be why we are still fighting for the rights we deserve in the restaurant industry today. Imagine how much further along we would be in our struggle if we had started from a place of inclusivity!
A few years later, in 1906, another group of waitresses in San Francisco started their own union. Similar to Local 240 in Seattle, Waitresses Local 48 operated as a white-women-only chapter until the 1930s. Other smaller locals, such as those in Butte and Chicago, were integrated and there were Black waitress locals in Philadelphia and Atlantic City, but the nationally, locals’ organizing reflected the social norms of the time. Specific to the West Coast, however, were pervasive anti-Asian policies; The unions would go so far as to boycott restaurants that hired Asian workers. Needless to say, Asian workers were not welcome in the unions until much later.
By 1920, waitressing was the 14th most popular occupation for women in the nation and seventeen separate local waitress unions existed. This mirrored a national rise in organized labor, but the waitress unions were unique in that they represented not just a trade or craft, but only one group within that trade or craft. By the 1940s, almost 25% of the two hundred thousand female culinary workers were in their own waitress unions.
By then, the waitress unions, particularly in San Francisco, had pulled in many other women workers from across different workplaces. They were instrumental in city-wide organizing and advocated not just for waitresses, but organized labor as a whole. The ladies of Local 48 organized women workers in cafeterias (which were cheap eateries not specific to a workplace), department stores (which had fancy restaurants back in those days), drug stores (which had soda counters) and other women-dominated fields, growing the union’s ranks. They eventually organized almost the entire restaurant industry, among others, in the city, thus becoming one of the largest locals in the country.
The tactics used by the Waitress Unions were unique. For instance, they focused on educational campaigns by using pinback buttons on their uniforms to advertise their fights to customers. They found creative workarounds to restrictive strike laws by organizing “silent pickets” (instead of the more traditional loud and raucous atmosphere) and by selling labor newspapers in front of restaurants they were boycotting instead of using picket signs.
And their picket lines were legendary. They organized incredibly creative public campaigns by incorporating their finest assets. They staged beauty pageants, Halloween costume pickets and roller skating parades. At one picket line costume contest, the winner “was a young lunch counter striker (who) won with a dress covered entirely with spoons; on her back she carried a sign reading “Local 1100 can dish it out but can the Emporium take it?”
We see this humor today, like when the locked-out Star Garden dancers organized OSHA-violation themed picket lines during their workplace justice campaign. Restaurant workers, in addition to being natural organizers, are comedians at heart (hell, they’re standing up all the time anyways) and waitress unions embodied this attitude. But underneath the laughter, levity and cute outfits is an iron will and an unflinching fight for workplace justice.
Creative, empathetic and brilliant strategists, the waitress locals of the past started a fight for equality in the workplace. It’s up to us to finish the job in an expansive, inclusive way that lifts up all workers, regardless of race or gender identity.
You’re frustrated. Your coworkers are frustrated too. Endless hushed conversations in the walk-in and at the server station all seem to center around the same topic. How can you and your coworkers channel that frustration into positive, tangible change in the workplace?
One of the simplest ways to realize collective power in the workplace is to present a demand letter to management. This letter, drafted by employees outlining issues they want to be addressed, is presented to management as not only a way to document problems, but as a way for employees to present solutions. By acting collectively, we force management to come to the proverbial table and bargain. Plus, it’s harder to say no to a group than it is to one person, so it acts as a way to shield employees from retaliation.
There is inherent risk in taking public collective action. Before you speak up, take a beat to reflect on the consequences. Some things to consider:
-Do a general vibe check: Can we work together or will petty squabbling derail the effort? Do we have enough capacity (time, energy, etc) to devote to this outside of work? Can folks be discreet?
-Once you’ve decided the risk is worth it, will others come to the same conclusion, not because you think they should, but because THEY think they should?
-Think about how you would like this to resolve, and be realistic about how to get there. Sometimes a demand letter is met with an outright no; how will you react to that information? Who stands to lose the most, and how can we protect them?
Restaurants are inherently cooperative spaces; we work together and share the same goals during service, which could be easy to translate into taking collective action, like presenting a demand letter.
We already are thinking about each other every time we yell “corner!” or check up on each other’s tables or cover someone’s shift or ask if anyone else needs anything from the walk-in. The issues discussed in a demand letter should reflect the commonsense respect we have for each other. Make sure the demands are inclusive. Keep the focus on winnable demands. And act quickly; use the momentum behind the frustration to push the process forward.
So, how do we do this?
1. Talk to your coworkers and see what issues speak to the collective. Take notes but be discreet. You don’t need to talk to everyone, so avoid those who won’t be supportive, or worse, those who might snitch.
2. Narrow down the issues and choose wins.
3. Have a frank discussion with co-workers about retaliation, expectations and escalation; you need a next step plan before the letter is presented that accounts for as many outcomes as possible. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) allows workers to “join together to improve terms and conditions of employment without a union,” which means that presenting a demand letter to your boss is a protected right; you are joining together with your coworkers to improve the workplace, regardless of whether you’re in a union or not. This is called “concerted activity,” and it applies to all workers regardless of status.
This law is meant to protect you from retaliation and give you options if you are retaliated against. It might not stop a boss from making the mistake of retaliating against you, but if it does happen, you can and should file a charge with the National Labor Review Board, which is the government agency that enforces the rights outlined in the NLRA. Learn more about your rights here.
4. Draft the letter using this template. Keep it simple, direct and to the point.
5. Decide how and when to present the letter to management and who will be there. Will the letter be emailed from a collectively-access email account? If so, make sure the password is available to everyone involved. If you are going to present the letter in person, decide on a time where as many folks can be there as possible. And find a printer in advance!
6. Have someone document the process (take photos & notes). This will come in handy if you need to escalate to a public pressure campaign on social media. Plus, imagine how proud you’ll feel when your phone features this as a memory two years from now!
7. Congratulations! You and your co-workers have collectively reclaimed your power in the workplace.
If management concedes and addresses the issues in a way you all see fit, then great! Keep this tool in mind for the next time an issue crops up, either at this workplace or at one in the future.
If management puts up a fight, drags their heels or otherwise doesn’t cooperate, it’s time to call on the next steps you collectively agreed on. Whether you escalate, regroup or even if the effort dissolves, you still put forth a remarkably brave effort and that is something to be proud of.
A demand letter can be the end of the collective action, or it can be the beginning of a longer campaign for workplace justice. Workplace organizing is a real choose-your-own-adventure, and there are endless possibilities for how we can realize our collective power. One option is to form a union, which frequently happens after the demands outlined in the letter aren’t met. Check out the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, Secrets of a Successful Organizer, your local DSA Labor Group and/or Restaurant Workers United!
It can be very helpful to talk to an organizer when thinking about taking collective action. Reach out to us on social media or email for advice! But remember, all restaurant workers are community organizers, we are just here to help.
What do restaurant workers need to know about non-compete agreements?
Noncompete clauses prevent workers from joining a competing business. One in six restaurant workers have signed one at some point in their careers, yet many don’t know the restrictions until it’s too late. In fact, up to one-third of noncompete agreements are presented after a job is accepted. 30 million workers are trapped in restrictive contracts.
So how does this affect workers? For example, you work at Fast Food Restaurant A, but don’t get enough hours to pay rent. You want to take on a similar job at Fast Food Restaurant B. However, Fast Food Restaurant A snuck a non-compete agreement in your hiring paperwork, and you don’t learn this until Fast Food Restaurant B refuses to hire you. You weren’t made aware of this clause when you signed up to work at Restaurant A and now you are limited as to where you can work.
Workers’ power is concentrated in the labor that they freely offer (or withhold). Restricting restaurant worker’s movement in the labor market, like by being able to find a second job in the next town over, erodes their power. Noncompete requirements, which generally come from the CEOs and are imposed on franchise owners, are just another attempt to chip away at our power.
So what can be done?
Well, in 2018, then Attorney General of Washington, Bob Ferguson, spearheaded a campaign to investigate no-poach agreements in franchise agreements nationwide. No-poach terms, a type of noncompete agreement, prevents workers from working at different locations of the same company. Ferguson negotiated with corporations to eliminate the clauses, and sued those who didn’t.
The result? 237 corporations, including McDonald’s, no longer use no poach terms in their hiring agreements. As Ferguson said, “These clauses rigged the system against workers.”
And now we have a chance to restore power to workers nationwide.
On January 5, 2023, a rule was proposed to the FTC to ban non-compete agreements. Before the rule is adopted, they are soliciting comments from the public.
We’ve seen the results of eliminating no-poach clauses. It’s time to raise your voice and tell your story on how and why banning non-competes would help you, your family, your co-workers and your community. Tell the FTC to ban non-competes by submitting comments here.
Deadline to submit non-compete comments is March 20, 2023.
How does a policy from the 1800s still affect workers today?
The practice of tipping began in America in the mid to late 1800s, right around the end of the Civil War. Freed slaves were technically allowed to work for wages, but often could not find paying work with White business owners. The socially constructed solution was to employ Black folks in service jobs where they could work for tips, not employer-paid wages. Confining Black workers to the hospitality sector was itself a continuation of the racist legacy of chattel slavery and the stereotypes built around Black workers. By 1880, 43% of all workers employed in hotels and restaurants were African Americans.
Tipped workers were paid at the discretion of the customer and their White employers were not held to any federal wage standard. This exposed the workers to not only economic precarity, but to a litany of other abuses (such as sexual harassment in the workplace, which continues today). Groups such as the Pullman Car Company, which only employed Black men to attend to the needs of the wealthy White patrons, hotel owners and even the National Restaurant Association maintained excluding tipped workers from being paid real wages for decades. In 1900, 37 years after emancipation, a quarter of all African Americans engaged in non-agricultural labor were employed as servants and waiters. Nearly three-quarters of these workers were women. This practice continued until 1966, when an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act passed as a part of the larger Civil Rights Movement.
However this amendment only created a sub-minimum tipped wage, which allows employers to pay any tipped worker a fraction of the federal minimum wage; theoretically, the tips from customers would make up the difference. If the difference is not made up from tips, then the employer is legally bound to pay up, also known as the tip credit. In practice, employees do not always make the minimum wage as the tip credit is paid at the discretion of the business owner and there are currently no mechanisms by which to enforce this.
There have been adjustments to the tipped minimum wage since 1966, but it has not been raised since 1991. The federal tipped sub-minimum wage remains at $2.13 and remains not enough for any worker to survive, let alone thrive.
Today, this means that tipped workers, particularly Black tipped workers, live in poverty at higher rates than non-tipped workers, particularly in states paying the subminimum tipped wage. Black tipped workers also tend to be employed in restaurants that average lower check totals, and hence receive less tips. Forty percent of the subminimum tipped wage workforce is workers of color.
When employers pay workers less than the minimum, they are effectively telling workers that they are worth less than the minimum. When employers pay workers less, it tells workers their labor has no value, that their contributions have no value, that they have value. It’s easier to dismiss a lack of paid sick time, a lack of healthcare, a lack of basic job protections because business owners have decided the job is lacking respect.
All restaurant workers are worth more than the minimum. All restaurant workers are valued. All restaurant workers deserve respect.
The federal tipped wage continues a racist history and maintains white supremacy in our hospitality spaces. It’s time to demand economic justice in the form of a living wage for all restaurant workers. It is our duty to combat the racist (and sexist) ramifications of the subminimum wage and work towards a future that ensures all restaurant workers the right to thrive.