Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘restaurant workers’

DC Council overrules constituents, votes to reinstall tipped wage system

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2018

The District of Columbia’s city council took the first step Tuesday to overturn Initiative 77, a measure passed by a 55 percent to 45 percent majority by the Washington voters. If its efforts succeed, as expected, the council will undo the minimum wage protections for tipped workers.

A 2016 living wage law, enacted by the city council, established a series of gradual steps up to a $15 minimum wage for workers — but included a lower $5-an-hour minimum for service workers, so long as their tips brought that total to no less than $15 per hour. Restaurant-workers-rights groups launched a voter initiative to phase out that exemption and, on June 19, 2018, more than 55 percent of those voting on primary day backed the effort. The restaurant industry — and the city council members they have bankrolled — immediately launched an effort to overturn the voters’ will by city council legislation.

On Tuesday afternoon, the city council rejected a proposed compromise and endorsed a full repeal, on an 8 to 5 vote. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) has said she will sign the legislation, authored by Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D). Six council Democrats and one independent voted yes on the initial vote; four Democrats and one independent voted no.  District voters have not elected a Republican to the council since 2004.

The council reaffirmed this on an 8 to 5 vote later in the afternoon.  Final final passage is expected later in the October.

Bowser’s official website highlights the District of Columbia’s demand for statehood — it currently has limited “home rule” but the U.S. Congress can overrule any local action. “DC residents seek full democracy for DC since 1982 and today,” it proclaims. “Mayor Muriel Bowser continues the fight to secure full democracy for DC because it is the most appropriate mechanism to grant U.S. citizens, who reside in the District of Columbia, the full rights and privileges of American citizenship.”

But for Bowser and the majority of council members, that full democracy can be overridden when the restaurant industry does not like what the majority decides.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on October 2, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Josh Israel has been senior investigative reporter for ThinkProgress since 2012. Previously, he was a reporter and oversaw money-in-politics reporting at the Center for Public Integrity, was chief researcher for Nick Kotz’s acclaimed 2005 book Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws that Changed America, and was president of the Virginia Partisans Gay & Lesbian Democratic Club.

D.C. Council moves to overrule voters, reinstall tipped wage system

Friday, July 13th, 2018

This week, the majority of the D.C. Council supported a repeal of Initiative 77. Initiative 77 is the ballot measure voters approved in June that eliminates the tipped minimum wage and would gradually phase out the tipped workers’ minimum wage, so that by 2026, all workers are paid the same minimum wage.

Fifty-six percent of District voters approved of it. States such as California, Alaska, Washington, and Oregon, have gotten rid of the subminimum wage, and Economic Policy Institute’s analysis shows that poverty rates for servers and bartenders are lower in the states that have.

The campaign against Initiative 77 was well-funded and backed by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington (RAMW), which created a committee, “Save Our Tip System Initiative 77” to spread anti-Initiative 77 messages. According to The Intercept, the committee is managed partly by Lincoln Strategy Group, which did canvassing work for the Trump campaign. The National Restaurant Association, which has been lobbying against the tipped minimum wage for decades, gave the campaign $25,000.

The council members who have supported a repeal include Jack Evans (D), Anita Bonds (D), Trayon White (D), Kenyan McDuffie (D), Brandon Todd (D), Vincent Gray (D), and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D). Brianne Nadeau (D) tweeted that although she did not support the ballot measure, voters did, which is why she didn’t back the repeal.

Council member Todd tweeted that “This bill is just the beginning of a legislative process where nuanced deliberation & constructive dialogue can take place.” When asked by Washington Post reporter Fenit Nirappil how a bill flatly repealing it would lead to nuanced deliberations, Todd responded that “it initiates public hearings. Who knows how the bill will change as testimony and more information become available.”

The Council won’t take up the bill until after summer recess. Council members chose not to announce the bill to repeal during a committee meeting and instead filed it with the Council’s Office of the Secretary.

Diana Ramirez of the Restaurant Opportunities Center DC told WAMU, “These are the same constituents who just voted them into office and re-elected them. I think they deserve to tell us why they introduced this.”

Although Ramirez has voiced a willingness to work with council members on some kind of compromise legislation, according to the Washington Post, Council member Mendelson said, “There are not a lot of compromise ideas that come to mind.”

The council has only overridden ballot initiatives four times since the 1980s, according to the Washington Post.

There have been many recent incidents of local lawmakers trying to override ballot measures. In Nebraska, Republican lawmakers filed a lawsuit to prevent voters from putting Medicaid expansion on the ballot this November. In other states, such as Maine and South Dakota, lawmakers have blocked or repealed ballot measures.

Josh Altic, project director for the Ballot Measures Project for the website Ballotpedia, told Stateline, a nonpartisan news service, “We have definitely seen some notable cases of legislative tampering this year, especially with regard to the boldness with which legislatures are willing to change or repeal initiatives.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on July 11, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress covering economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits.

What You Need to Know About Washington, D.C.'s Initiative 77 and the Minimum Wage

Wednesday, June 20th, 2018

On Tuesday, Washington, D.C., voters will have an opportunity to vote on Initiative 77, a ballot measure supported by a wide array of progressive and labor organizations that would eliminate the subminimum wage for tipped workers and give many working families a much-needed raise.

Initiative 77 would increase the tipped minimum wage to match the full wage: If it passes, the initiative would phase out the tipped minimum wage, leaving a flat $15 per hour minimum wage for D.C. workers. This would be phased in between now and 2025, giving restaurant and bar owners more than enough time to adjust to the change.

Tipped workers aren’t limited to restaurants and bars: Many other workers get tips, too, including manicurists/pedicurists, hairdressers, shampooers, valets, taxi and rideshare drivers, massage therapists, baggage porters and others. Very few of them get anywhere near the 20% standard you see in high-end restaurants and bars.

The current law is changing, but it will still leave tipped workers behind: The current minimum wage in D.C. is $12.50 an hour, with a minimum wage of $3.33 for tipped workers. If tipped workers don’t earn enough from tips to get to $12.50, employers are supposed to pay the difference. After existing minimum wage increases are fully implemented, the full minimum wage for D.C. will be $15 an hour, while the tipped minimum will increase to $5. The cost of living in D.C. is higher than every state in the United States except Hawaii.

D.C. has a particular problem with the minimum wage: As one of the places in the United States with the highest costs of living, low-wage workers are hit harder by discriminatory laws. D.C. has the largest gap in the country between its tipped minimum wage and its prevailing minimum wage. Tipped workers in D.C. are twice as likely to live in poverty as the city’s overall workforce. Tipped workers in D.C. are forced to use public assistance at a higher rate than the overall population, with 14% using food stamps and 23% using Medicaid.

Wherever tipped wage jobs exist, they are typically low-wage, low-quality jobs: Nationally, the median wage is $16.48 and tipped workers median wage is $10.22. Nationally, 46% of tipped workers receive public assistance, whereas non-tipped workers use public assistance at a rate of 35.5%. Workers at tipped jobs are less likely to have access to paid sick leave, paid holiday leave, paid vacations, health insurance and retirement benefits. Seven of the 10 lowest-paying job categories are in food services, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Tipped workers are more likely to end up in poverty: In states where the tipped minimum wage is at the federal standard of $2.13, the lowest in the country, the poverty rate for all workers is 14.5%, which breaks down to 18% for waitstaff and bartenders and 7% for non-tipped employees. What day of the week it is, bad weather, a sluggish economy, the changing of the seasons and any number of other factors completely outside of a server’s control can influence tips and make a night, a week or a season less likely to generate needed income.

The predictions of doom and gloom about raising the minimum wage or the tipped minimum wage never come true: Eight states already have eliminated the tipped wage and the restaurants in those states have higher sales per capita, higher job growth, higher job growth for tipped workers and higher rates of tipping. In fact, states without a lower tipped minimum wage have actually seen sectors where tipping is common grow stronger than in states where there is a subminimum wage. This is consistent with the data from overseas where countries have eliminated tipping and subminimum tipped wages. In states without a subminimum tipped wage, tipped workers, across the board, earn 14% higher. Increased minimum wages lead to employers seeing a reduction in turnover and increases in productivity. And, while there are certainly some exceptions, tippers in states without subminimum wage don’t tip less.

Tipped workers are more likely to be women, making lives worse for them and their families: Of the 4.3 million tipped workers in the United States, 60% of them are waiters and bartenders. Of that 2.5 million, 69% of them are women. Furthermore, 24% are parents, and 16% of them are single mothers. Half of the population of tipped bartenders and waitstaff are members of families that earn less than $40,000. Increasing the tipped minimum wage lets parents work fewer nights and have more time at home with their families. It also helps provide for a more steady, predictable income. Since 66% of tipped workers are women, a lower tipped minimum wage essentially creates legalized gender inequity in the industry. These lowest-paid occupations are majority female. More than one in four female restaurant servers or bartenders in D.C. live in poverty, twice the rate of men in the same jobs.

Harassment and objectification are encouraged by the tipped system: The stories about harassment in the restaurant industry are legion. Servers are forced to tolerate inappropriate behavior from customers in order to not see an instant decrease in income. This forces them to subject themselves to objectification and harassment. Workers in states with a subminimum tipped wage are twice as likely to experience sexual harassment in the workplace. In D.C., more than  90% of restaurant workers report some form of sexual harassment on the job. Women’s tips increase if they have blond hair, a larger breast size and a smaller body size, leading to discrimination against women that don’t have those qualities. Nearly 37% of sexual harassment charges filed by women to the EEOC come from the restaurant industry. This rate is five times higher than the overall female workforce. LGBTQ serversalso face a higher rate of harassment in order to obtain tips. Sexual harassment of transgender employees and men is also high in tipped environments. Some 60% of transgender workers reported scary or unwanted sexual behavior. More than 45% of male workers reported that sexual harassment was part of their work life, as well.

The subminimum tipped wage harms people of color: Research shows that tipping has racist impacts, too. Nonwhite restaurant workers take home 56% less than their white colleagues. Research shows that if the minimum wage had held the value it had in 1968, poverty rates for black and Hispanic Americans would be 20% lower. While many restaurants and bars claim to be race-neutral in hiring, the evidence shows that race often has an impact on who gets hired for jobs that directly interact with customers. And fine-dining environments, the ones where servers and bartenders make the most in tips, are much more likely to hire white servers and bartenders, particularly white males. Also, customers, generally speaking, tip black servers less than white servers. For instance, black servers get 15-25% smaller tips, on average in D.C.

The people behind the opposition to 77 are not worker- or democracy-friendly: Public disclosures show that the Save Our Tips campaign that opposes Initiative 77 is heavily funded by the National Restaurant Assocation. This particular NRA represents the interests of, and is funded by, big corporations, such as McDonald’s, Yum! (which owns Taco Bell, Pizza Hut & KFC), Burger King, Darden Restaurants (which owns Olive Garden, Red Lobster and others) and more. The group spends as much as $98 million to oppose minimum wage increases, safety and labor requirements and benefit increases and requirements. Meanwhile, the CEO of the NRA, Dawn Sweeney, took home $3.8 million in total compensation.

The Save Our Tips campaign is managed in part by Lincoln Strategy Group. In 2016, the group did $600,000 worth of work for the Donald Trump presidential campaign. Lincoln Strategy is managed by Nathan Sproul, a Republican consultant and former executive director of the Arizona Christian Coalition. Sproul has a history of being accused of fraudulent election-related activities, including destroying Democratic voter registration forms and creating a fake grassroots effort to undermine the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Another corporate-sponsored group, the Employment Policy Institute, has come out strongly against the initiative and created a website to attack it and ROC. The Institute is the creation of Rick Berman, a wealthy corporate lobbyist who runs campaigns against public interest groups like the Humane Society and labor unions.

Up until 1996, the tipped subminimum wage had been tied into being 50% of the prevailing minimum wage. That year, legislation decoupled the two and the subminimum wage for tipped jobs has stayed at $2.13 nationally, while some states have raised it. The NRA, headed up then by former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain, who would go on to run for president, led the charge to separate the two minimum wages.

The separate tipped minimum wage is a burden on employers and invites misuse: The system of tracking tips and wages so that employers can make up the difference is a complex one that is burdensome for employers. The system requires extensive tracking and accounting of tip flows. Not only this, employers are allowed to average tips over the course of a workweek and only have to pay the difference if the average is less than the minimum wage. Tips can also be pooled among various types of restaurant employees. Tip stealing and wage theft are hard to prove and workers are often reluctant to report them out of fear that they will be given fewer shifts or fired.

Employers frequently fail to pay the balance to their employees: While the law requires to make up the balance when tipped wages don’t reach the full minimum wage, employers often fail to do so. The Department of Labor investigated more than 9,000 restaurants and found that 84% had violated this law and had to pay out nearly $5.5 million in back pay because of tipping violations. How many didn’t get caught?

Restaurants are using union-avoidance tactics to sway employees against the initiative: Numerous reports from workers at D.C. restaurants have made it clear that not only are employers singing on to public letters and posting signs against Initiative 77, they are trying to sway their employees, too. Tactics that have been reported are straight from the union-advoidance industry. Many employers are forcing employees to listen to their opinion on the measure. Others have instructed them to evangelize to customers. Some are sending instructions to their employees on how to volunteer at the polls against the Initiative. Others have shared explicitly political videos with employees. Some managers have gone as far as to speak negatively about community organizations advocating for Initiative 77.

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on June 18, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

So you think tipping ensures good service? No, but it does enable sexual harassment

Thursday, March 15th, 2018

People who work in restaurants will tell you: tips say more about customers than about the service they get. All those people who say that tips are a way to reward good service and punish bad service? Sorry, but that’s not how it works in practice every day in restaurants across the country. Instead, tips are all too often used as weapons to force women to accept sexual harassment. A few of those women detailed their worst experiences for the New York Times:

There was the young server at a burger joint in Georgia, Emmallie Heard, whose customer held her tip money in his hand and said, “So you gonna give me your number?” She wrote it down, but changed one of the digits.

There was the waitress in Portland, Ore., Whitney Edmunds, who swallowed her anger when a man patted his lap and beckoned her to sit, saying, “I’m a great tipper.”

And at a steakhouse in Gonzales, La., Jaime Brittain stammered and walked away when a group of men offered a $30 tip if she’d answer a question about her pubic hair. She returned and provided a “snappy answer” that earned her the tip, but acknowledges having mixed feelings about the episode.

If you don’t believe restaurant workers when they say that tips aren’t about good service, the research agrees with them—and shows that tipping promotes racial inequality:

… good service does not motivate tipping decisions as much as people think, said Michael Lynn, a professor of consumer behavior and marketing at Cornell, who has spent years studying why we tip.

“The evidence just isn’t there that the desire to reward good service is driving most tipping decisions,” he said.

Instead, Professor Lynn said, customers are more likely to tip waitresses who are large-breasted, slender and blond, according to research he published in 2009. White servers are tipped more than people of color, according to his research.

And when tipped workers are paid a subminimum wage of $2.13 an hour—which has been the federal level for more than two decades—it only increases their dependence on tips.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on March 12, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at DailyKos.

Trump Dept. of Labor Rule Would Legalize Employers Stealing Workers’ Tips

Friday, December 15th, 2017

Last week, the Trump administration launched yet another front in its war on workers when the Department of Labor (DOL) proposed a new rule that would allow restaurants and other employers of tipped workers to begin legally pocketing their workers’ tips. 

The DOL’s proposed rule would ostensibly allow restaurants to take the tips that servers and bartenders earn and share them with untipped employees, such as cooks and dishwashers. This may sound like as a reasonable change, since kitchen staff are essential to the dining experience. Indeed, we do need to reform how restaurant workers generally and tipped workers specifically are paid, including reducing pay disparities between “front of the house” workers and kitchen staff.

But this proposed rule is not really aimed at fixing these problems. How do we know? Because, critically, the rule does not actually require that employers distribute “pooled” tips to workers. Under the administration’s proposed rule, as long as tipped workers earn the minimum wage, employers could legally pocket those tips for themselves.

Evidence shows that even now, when employers are prohibited from pocketing tips, many still do. Research on workers in three large U.S. cities—Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York—finds that 12 percent of tipped workers had their tips stolen by their employer or supervisor. Recent research also shows that workers in restaurants and bars are much more likely to suffer minimum wage violations—meaning being paid less than minimum wage—than workers in other industries. In the 10 most populous states, nearly one out of every seven restaurant workers reports being paid less than the minimum wage.

In some cases, this is the result of employers illegally confiscating tips. In others, it may be the result of employers asking staff to work off the clock, taking illegal deductions from paychecks or paying less than minimum wage to workers who may feel they cannot speak up—such as formerly incarcerated individuals, undocumented workers or foreign guest workers. These violations amount to more than $2.2 billion in stolen wages annually—and that’s just in the 10 largest states.

With that much illegal wage theft occurring, it should be clear that when employers can legally pocket the tips earned by their employees, many will. And while the bulk of tipped employees work in restaurants, tipped workers outside the restaurant industry—such as nail salon workers, casino dealers, barbers and hair stylists—could also see their bosses begin taking a cut from their tips.

The Economic Policy Institute estimates that under the Trump administration’s proposed rule, employers would pocket nearly $6 billion in tips earned by tipped workers each year. Trump’s DOL even acknowledges that this could occur, stating “The proposed rule rescinds those portions of the 2011 regulations that restrict employer use of customer tips when the employer pays at least the full Federal minimum wage.” In other words, so long as servers, bartenders and other tipped workers are being paid the measly federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, employers can do whatever they please with those workers’ tips. The DOL claims that this is actually a benefit of the proposed rule because it “may result in a reduction in litigation”—that is, fewer tipped workers being able to sue employers who steal their pay.

The fact that Trump’s DOL would so brazenly work to undermine protections for one of the lowest-paid, most poverty-stricken segments of the workforce says a lot about this administration’s values. The federal DOL is many workers’ primary source of protection when mistreated by an employer. In fact, 14 states effectively defer their wage and hour enforcement capacity to federal officials—meaning that outside of a private lawsuit, the federal DOL is these workers’ only option for recourse.

An administration that genuinely cared about working people would crack down on employers stealing from workers, not propose to legalize it.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on December 15, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: David Cooper is a Senior Economic Analyst at the Economic Policy Institute.

For Women Restaurant Workers, Sexual Harassment Starts with the Day You’re Hired

Thursday, November 9th, 2017

Anyone who has ever scanned Craigslist for a restaurant job knows the boilerplate “will train the right person,” code for, among other things, “Be young and have a nice ass.” I have two (attractive, blonde) female colleagues who got their first serving jobs at 19 on the supposed basis of their scores on the restaurant giant Darden’s infamous personality test. The first guy who ever hired me to wait tables said he liked my writing in my personal statement.

No one is innately or instantly good at waiting tables. Training someone who has never worked in a restaurant involves several long weeks of physically and mentally exhausting serial humiliation during which time she is likely, perversely, to be the restaurant’s most expensive front-of house employee, since until she is eligible to earn tips she has to be paid the ghastly sum that is the full minimum wage. The “right person” is likely to be the target, until a new right person supplants her, of so much hostility and derision from the chefs and the cooks and the food runners and the bartenders and the managers who didn’t hire her, and the other waiters and waitresses forced to train her, that the sexual harassment that results inevitably from being hired for her looks/intangibles/etc. is likely to seem, at first anyway, like the least of her problems. At first.

The dress code at my first restaurant job consisted, for women, of a black miniskirt, ballet flats and neutral makeup during the week and black minidress, slouchy boots, red lipstick and “statement jewelry” on the weekends. For dudes, it was a black shirt and jeans at all times. None of the dudes had been hired on the basis of their potential to prove themselves “the right person”; they’d all been servers at big strip mall chains and, before that, food runners and bussers and barbacks. They had collective decades of advanced tray carrying experience on us: The youngest female server had just turned 19, the youngest male was 27, and that was a fairly standard state of affairs at restaurants willing to administer Remedial Restaurant 101 to “the right person.” It would be hard to design a context more conducive to being sexually harassed by co-workers, and indeed, like 80 percent of women restaurant workers in a 2014 Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC United) survey, we all were.

We experienced sexual harassment from customers, too (as did nearly 80 percent in the ROC United survey)—the entire point of making female servers dress a certain way is to entice customers, not managers or coworkers. But as in any field, it’s the harassment from bosses and superiors—the guys who decide whether you’ll be waiting on three tables or ten tonight, who can choose to help you or chastise you if the hosts stick you with five two tops all at once and you get behind, the guys you see every fucking day—that really gets to you. Even the handsiest dirty old man customer has to compete with a dozen other dinner guests for your attention, and if he’s really that creepy the hosts won’t let him sit in your section—or depending on his spending habits/status/infractions, any woman’s section—again. (Also, there’s always the chance creepy old man leaves a 40 percent tip, in which case, and depending on the infraction, he is roughly 90 percent forgiven.) 

I was fired from my first job after two weeks, when the guy who hired me went on vacation. The firing was done by a nervous-looking fellow who’d spoken all of three words to me and gave no reason at all. For months afterward, I was still fielding flirtatious texts from the fortysomething ex-Marine I’d been assigned to shadow during my brief employment. (He thought he could get me hired back.) My friend Liz, who worked for an enormous restaurant chain, survived hazing to win the “most improved server” award after a year during which she learned “to finally not suck,” but one of her managers regularly slapped her ass on the floor (even after she started whipping out her lighter and threatening to burn him whenever he approached) and another would regularly creep up and massage her shoulder blades—oh to have a nickel for every unwanted shoulder massage!—while she was ringing in orders.

And that’s par for the course at a massive publicly traded company with a huge human resources department. My current restaurant group has no HR department, despite employing close to a thousand people (among them a half dozen “guest relations” staffers whose full time job it is to pore over the responses to our incessant feedback emails for negative reviews.) The response to sexual harassment claims varies depending on who is doing the harassing and who is responding to the complaint: The chefs recently fired a cook for repeatedly cornering a cocktail waitress in the underground parking lot to ask for dates, but a food runner who complained last year of being constantly harassed for sex by an executive manager was simply transferred to another restaurant. Nor was there an HR department at Besh Hospitality Group, the 1,200-employee restaurant group helmed by Louisiana celebrity chef John Besh, until the publication last month of an expose in which 25 separate women accused the chef of fostering a Playboy Mansion-esque corporate culture and forcing himself (and inflicting what can only be described as two years of veritable sex slavery) upon a young female subordinate. I don’t want to make too much of this: “Human resources” as a field originated primarily as a union avoidance scheme; its practitioners are inherently adversarial to the interests of employees. But if nothing else, the presence of someone, anyone, devoted to the function can—maybe?—serve as a deterrent to the worst behavior, or a psychological comfort to someone who knows she is being mistreated. A union could help, but you could probably fit the number of unionized non-hotel American restaurant workers inside my restaurant.

Without any third party nominally devoted to employment law compliance, bosses operate with total impunity, as a friend of mine learned when her manager attacked her in the office when she was working as a nightclub bartender in her early twenties. “He was always known as ‘the groper’ and it was just kind of this hilarious joke,” she recalls. “He had an Asian fetish and that was a joke, too. I worked with him for two or three years and nothing happened. Then one night I needed cash in the middle of my shift, and I went into the office and he’s putting his hand up my skirt. I ran out, and after that he suddenly started acting really serious with me. One night in the middle of service, he called me into the office and showed me a video of me serving a guest, then immediately serving another and explained that I had just given a drink away without ringing it in—which was probably because she or someone in her group had a tab—but anyway, therefore I was being fired for stealing. I didn’t even argue. I just felt like I had no voice and would be forever known as ‘that girl.’”

It’s hard to say what exactly she means by “that girl.” Every restaurant is haunted by a few apocryphal tales of “that girl” who slipped on a piece of pasta while cutting in line for staff meal and successfully sued for nine months of worker’s comp, or forgot her hairnet the day the health inspector came and shut down the restaurant during service, or had some conflict with the only prep cook who could properly execute the foie gras parfait—and now we can’t eat in the back hallway/chop vegetables during staff meal/have nice things/etc. “That girl” isn’t always a girl—and the stories often have some basis in reality—but it is generally some employee whose defining quality is incompetence/disposability. Women who work in restaurants are exponentially more likely to feel acutely disposable in any given context, I think because we so often start in semi-ornamental roles, whether as barely-competent server trainees hired for our intangible qualities, or as hostesses hired to stand at the front of the restaurant and apologize profusely for the circumstances that led to all the riverside tables being occupied right now.  

A parallel, albeit more nuanced imbalance exists on the other side of the kitchen doors, where you will never, ever, ever find a woman washing dishes (typically, you will find a Latino man in trash bags doing the job) and you will virtually never find a woman grilling steaks, but you’ll find lots of women polishing glasses and arranging edible flowers on salads and piping meticulous domes and Hershey kisses and happy birthday messages out of oversized pastry bags. Women culinary workers who venture outside their assigned ghettos are often made to feel sorry they tried, via sexual assault and humiliation: A chef I know was fired from her first job in fine dining after the sous chef she’d theretofore considered a mentor shoved his crotch into her hands inside a walk-in refrigerator. She told people the story; soon after, she was fired over a small infraction—being late for a shift. She believes they feared she’d report the assault and wanted her gone.

Which brings me to a rare redeeming trait of the industry’s gender dynamics: As rampant as sexually inappropriate behavior is, there is also a severe shortage of private spaces in which that behavior has the opportunity to rise to full-fledged assault. (This is not to say assault doesn’t find places to happen: An August lawsuit detailing the “rape culture” pervading the—unionized!—Plaza Hotel described the coatroom as a go-to unsafe space for uninvited groping, and a Texas jury last year awarded $7.65 million to a teenage Chipotle employee whose manager raped her in the bathroom, the back office and by the dumpster outside in the parking lot.) There are no private offices and very few hotel suites, and the amount of time in a day the typical restaurant manager or server or even dishwasher or coat check girl can plausibly spend away from the kitchen or the floor is measured in minutes. Most importantly, the industry itself is fragmented and dispersed, its ultimate product hopelessly chained to an old-fashioned distribution system that relies on vast armies of human laborers, not an exclusive clique of “It Girl” starlets. There are thousands of chefs and restaurants with Michelin stars and James Beard awards and cookbooks and reality television appearances, and none of them can even begin to approach, even on a regional level, the influence or reach Harvey Weinstein exerted in Hollywood. That might be the biggest reason I don’t know anyone who has been seriously long-term traumatized by restaurant industry sleazebaggery the way certain journalist and media friends have been left utterly devastated by their relationships with various “predators”—no one person, in restaurants, can destroy your livelihood or render you long-term unemployable.

And yet over the long term I think all the women I know intend to lose the war of attrition with this industry. ROC United found that a third of women who had quit the restaurant industry after working in tipped positions did so because of unwanted sexual behavior. The diminishing financial returns are no longer worth the accumulated microaggressions—and it gets to the point where every friendly high-five between male colleagues in the line for staff meal feels like a tiny ulcer. I have been waiting tables for longer than I ever intended, and since graduating from the prime sexual harassment demographic, the rare lecherous remark is almost flattering. I look young enough that I should have a good five to seven years left before I find myself mysteriously demoted or taken off the schedule (the fate that tends to befall middle aged servers at Darden-owned Seasons 52, whose age discrimination case goes to trial this month.) But I still don’t make nearly as much money as male colleagues who regularly make stupid mistakes and get negative guest feedback and come to work viciously hungover—and neither do any of the female servers (save the one hypercompetitive twentysomething wunderkind who through sheer force of singleminded perfection and dogged sycophancy gets as many VIP tables as the mediocre bro types.) According to ROC United, full-time female servers make 68 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts.

But the most damaging legacy of our profession’s institutional sexual harassment may be the lasting perception that whatever we have achieved in the industry we owe to the fact that someone, at some point, just wanted to get in our pants.

This piece was originally published at In These Times on November 9, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author works as a server in a restaurant. Ursula Buffay is a pseudonym.

Workers Say Trump’s Labor Secretary Nominee Is a Habitual Violator of Labor Law

Tuesday, January 17th, 2017

Andrew Puzder, Donald Trump’s nominee for labor secretary, is uniquely unqualified for that job. As secretary, he’d be charged with enforcing health and safety, overtime and other labor laws. But as CEO of CKE Restaurants, the parent company of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., he’s made his considerable fortune from violating these very same laws, according to a report by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United released this week.

ROC, which advocates for restaurant workers nationwide, surveyed 564 CKE workers, 76 percent of them women. In discussing the results of the survey, it’s important to note that while ROC surveyed a large number of workers, the respondents are people who chose to fill out a survey distributed by a workers’ rights organization, which they learned about through their social media networks. Still, ROC reported “unprecedented” interest in the survey among workers at CKE and their eagerness to be part of the study, and the experiences they reported, are striking reminders that by tapping Puzder, Trump has made clear that his administration will be a dystopian nightmare for U.S. workers.

A recent national survey among non-managerial women working in fast food found that 40 percent of such women have experienced sexual harassment on the job. Under Puzder, the problem could worsen: A whopping 66 percent of female CKE workers ROC surveyed had faced sexual harassment. Harassment came from supervisors, co-workers or—most often—customers, and took the form of sexual comments, groping, unwanted sexual texts and pressure for dates.

CKE is known for its sexist advertising, which depicts women in skimpy bikinis devouring cheeseburgers. And, certainly, imagery contributes to the culture, but when harassment is as pervasive as it appears to be at CKE, there are usually more structural problems at play. Companies in which women are harassed are generally places in which women—indeed, workers in general—are not valued or respected, and in which workers lack any institutional means to stand up for their rights.

In such companies, women are often not paid and promoted fairly. And, as one might expect, nearly one in five of the CKE workers ROC surveyed said he or she had faced discrimination at work, most commonly on the basis of gender, age or race.

Of the CKE employees who participated in the ROC survey, nearly one-third said they did not get meal breaks that are mandated by law; around one-fourth had been illegally forced to work off the clock or had timecards altered; almost one-third had been illegally deprived of overtime pay.

The ROC survey also found widespread health and safety violations. Nearly one-third of those surveyed said they had become sick or injured on the job. Workers described an environment of slippery floors, frequent grease burns and many said they had to do dangerous tasks—like cleaning a hood over a hot char broiler, for instance—without proper protective equipment.

Appointing Puzder as labor secretary is like inviting Tony Soprano to serve as attorney general. Let’s hope this enemy of working people will face humiliation and defeat when his confirmation goes before the Senate. His hearing, originally set for next Tuesday, may now be postponed until February. That delay would give labor—meaning anyone who works for a living—more time to mobilize against him. Let’s get started.

This post originally appeared on inthesetimes.com on January 13, 2017.  Reprinted with permission.

Liza Featherstone is a journalist and author of Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart and False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton. 

At $2.13 Minimum Wage, Restaurant Workers Struggle to Put Food on Their Own Tables

Tuesday, December 31st, 2013

Laura ClawsonRestaurant workers are supposed to get at least minimum wage, when tips are combined with the $2.13 an hour tipped worker minimum wage. But, as the women in this video make clear, that’s not enough. Too often, employers don’t make up the difference, or even push workers to do prep or cleaning work at $2.13, with no chance to make tips. Or customers walk out on their checks, or leave a racist note instead of a tip, or a homophobic note instead of a tip, or a religious tract instead of a tip.

Relying on tips also forces an overwhelmingly female workforce to flirt with customers and smile at things that should be considered sexual harassment, all for the hope of a tip. A server named Gwenn told the Restaurant Opportunities Centers site Living Off Tips that “I think service is the hardest part. especially when customers decide how they’ll pay you by what they think of your looks.”

While the regular federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour hasn’t gone up since 2009, the minimum wage for tipped workers hasn’t gone up since 1991 and is now a cause of widespread poverty among restaurant workers.

This article was originally printed on Daily Kos on December 30, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is the labor editor at the Daily Kos.

Two Worlds: Waiters Who Starve, And Those Who Don't

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

jonathan-tasiniTwo sides of the planet. Two different systems. Two different realities for workers–and, therein, lies the lesson: economies are about power, and values.

Over in the U.S., if you are a waiter in the food industry, you are screwed, as Mark Bittman outlined in his column a few days ago, on the backs of a searing indictment called “The Hands That Feed Us”. Bittman writes:

Help wanted: Salary: $19,000 (some may be withheld or stolen). No health insurance, paid sick days or paid vacation. Opportunity for advancement: nearly nil.

This job, or something much like it, is held by nearly 20 million people, 10 million of whom work in restaurants. They are the workers employed in producing, processing and delivering our food, who have been portrayed in vivid and often dispiriting detail in a new report called The Hands That Feed Us. Written by the Food Chain Workers Alliance, the report surveyed nearly 700 workers employed in five major sectors: production, processing, distribution, retail and service.

The upshot: Our food comes at great expense to the workers who provide it. “The biggest workforce in America can’t put food on the table except when they go to work,” says Saru Jayaraman, Co-Founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-U).[emphasis added]

All this comes because of the pathetic “special minimum wage”–$2.13 an hour–paid to restaurant workers:

Take that $2.13 figure, the federal minimum wage for tipped workers. Legally, tips should cover the difference between that and the federal minimum wage, now a whopping $7.25. If they don’t, employers are obligated to make up the difference. But that doesn’t always happen, leaving millions of servers — 70 percent of whom are women — taking home far less than the minimum wage.

Which brings us to the happily almost-forgotten Herman Cain. What’s called the “tipped minimum wage” — that $2.13 — once increased in proportion to the regular minimum wage. But in 1996, the year Cain took over as head of the National Restaurant Association (NRA), he struck a deal with President Bill Clinton and his fellow Democrats. In exchange for an increase in the regular minimum wage, the tipped minimum wage was de-coupled. The result: despite regular increases in the regular minimum wage, the tipped minimum wage hasn’t changed since 1991.

Other disheartening facts: Around one in eight jobs in the food industry provides a wage greater than 150 percent of the regional poverty level. More than three-quarters of the workers surveyed don’t receive health insurance from their employers. (Fifty-eight percent don’t have it at all; national health care, anyone?) More than half have worked while sick or suffered injuries or health problems on the job, and more than a third reported some form of wage theft in the previous week. Not year: week.

And, as a reminder, even the $7.25-an-hour minimum wage, as

I’ve pointed out for a number of years

, is far below what it should be. It should be at least $20-an-hour, if you take into account how much productivity has risen over the past 30 years.

But, now, let’s take a trip half a planet away–to Australia where I have the pleasure of hanging my hat for a bit. The national minimum wage will go up to about $16-an-hour on July 1st. Waiters make that–and usually as much as $20-an-hour. Oh, and don’t forget they also are covered by the national health care plan (called “Medicare” here).

And, so, my Aussie friends are usually mildly annoyed when I add a tip to everything I eat–including coffee. It’s not that Aussies don’t tip–they do. But, it’s seen as an extra, a little more for particularly good service or when it seems appropriate. But, no one tipping a waiter here thinks that, in doing so, they are making a difference between a waiter making the rent or going broke. It’s not that waiters are rich. It is simply that they can do their job and earn a fair wage.

That’s the difference: exploitation U.S.-style versus a fair wage Aussie-style.

That is about basic values, morality and, ultimately, power.

This post originally appeared in Working Life on June 18, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is the executive director of Labor Research Association. Tasini ran for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in New York. For the past 25 years, Jonathan has been a union leader and organizer, a social activist, and a commentator and writer on work, labor and the economy. From 1990 to April 2003, he served as president of the National Writers Union (United Auto Workers Local 1981). He was the lead plaintiff in Tasini vs. The New York Times, the landmark electronic rights case that took on the corporate media’s assault on the rights of thousands of freelance authors.

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