Behind the Kitchen Door: A Summit on the D.C. Restaurant Industry

This summit was one of many being held on Valentines Day, which is the most profitable day of the year for restaurants, with similar events being held across the country, from L.A. to Miami, to discuss the findings of these city-specific reports, as well as a nation-wide report. The D.C. event included a great variety and caliber of panelists, including restaurant employers, city officials, labor advocates and scholars, and restaurant workers. ROC-D.C. articulated the most important findings of their report to be that, despite the recession, the restaurant industry is growing and has increased its employment in recent years. This means, yes, more jobs; but very few of these are “good jobs,” since they pay low wages, rarely give benefits, and put workers in positions where they are susceptible to health, safety, and labor law violations. The goal for today’s summit? To show that there is a possibility to take the high road, through legislative and employer action, as well as education of the public, so as to change this industry from one whose employees suffer from poverty level wages (only 13.7% of employees surveyed make a living wage) and poor conditions to one with a thriving work force.

While they came at the issue from different perspectives and focused on different specifics, all of the panelists highlighted similar major points from the report. Dr. William Spriggs, the Assistant Secretary for Policy in the U.S. Department of Labor, spoke on the Department’s goal of providing good jobs for everyone. This means jobs that provide livable wages, a safe workplace, and upward mobility for all races and genders. He stressed that current labor laws, from minimum wage and overtime regulations to anti-discrimination laws, need to be actively enforced and additional laws need to be passed for safer workplace standards. Plus, he believes there needs to be a way for jobs to be publicly posted so that unemployed Americans can see where exactly they can find work. He also explained that we need to help the campaign on these issues, actively voicing our desire for a community of fair labor standards for restaurant workers.

One important specific issue coming out of the report is the need to raise the federal tip minimum wage, which is currently a measly $2.13 an hour. Barbara Ehrenreich explained that the identified living wage in D.C. is $12.50 an hour, calculated by living on a bare bones budget. Most restaurant industry employees earn considerably less than this, while receiving no benefits and being frequent victims of wage theft. Ms. Ehrenreich, who worked as a restaurant worker as research for her book Nickel and Dimed, explained that all work requires skilled labor, and the people doing it should be treated with respect and compensated fairly.

A second main issue stressed by the panelists was in regards to paid sick days for restaurant employees. Local D.C. paid sick days law excludes tipped servers and bartenders, and as a result nearly 90% of restaurant workers do not receive any paid sick days. Thus, more than half of workers interviewed admitted to working in a restaurant while sick. Panelist Phil Mendelson, the D.C. Councilmember-At-Large who authored the legislation on this issue, explained how many workers who stay home when sick are fired as a result, and so most employees come to work, putting themselves and others at risk. The public should support a bill to amend this legislation to include all workers. Celeste Montforton from the School of Public Health at George Washington University reported that 48% of workers have no access to health insurance, and as result just simply can’t afford to miss work.

A final central issue is in regards to discrimination. Jamal Rauf, a restaurant worker in D.C. for the past 10 years, spoke about verbal abuse he received regarding his race, and Katherine Jimenez, a hostess in a fine-dining establishment, relayed stories of sexism from her employers. The ROC-D.C. report found that workers of color and immigrants typically receive the lowest paying jobs and face the most resistance when trying to enter management or other higher-level positions.

To read more, visit the ROC blog and check out restaurants like Eatonville and Busboys and Poets, which engage in fair labor practices, including paid sick days for all employees, health care, and in-house promotions, as well as use clean energy, recycled materials, and organic meat and produce.