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labor The Restaurant Industry Won’t Survive if its Workers Can’t

The future of an industry in crisis depends on support for the most disenfranchised—its workers. For restaurant workers the current crisis is an opportunity to demand remedies for long-standing ills such as wage theft, safety, abusive management.

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While restaurant owners, pro-business lobbyists, and the New York Post were convinced that taking away restaurant workers’ option to “rake in cash from unemployment checks” would force them to return to work en masse, many workers had no intention of going back to a notoriously exploitative and abusive industry after COVID-19 forced them out. The truth is that it will take far more than a loss of unemployment benefits to get restaurant workers to return without substantial, lasting change, and that’s especially true for back-of-house (BOH) staff—positions that are heavily filled by BIPOC and undocumented people and had the highest risk of death during the pandemic due to the demands of their workplace environment

“For an industry that already is operating in survival mode at all times, to throw a pandemic in it, everything becomes so much more horrifyingly apparent,” said Lily Nicholson, a restaurant worker who’s also an organizer with Memphis Restaurant Workers United. “We were left with this feeling of, ‘Well, what else do we have to lose?’ This [the pandemic] was what it took us to get here after decades of exploitation.” 

Many workers see the current crisis as an opportunity to demand remedies for long-standing ills, including wage theft, the lack of a livable wage, unsafe and unforgiving workplaces, and abusive management. But they face an uphill battle. Claims placing the blame on a purportedly lazy workforce and its reliance on “big government” for the stalled restaurant recovery persist, despite having been debunked by multiple studies. Still, more workers are refusing to accept a “return to normal”—instead, they’re making demands for better pay and safer working conditions, and they’re looking to collective bargaining, labor organizing, and federal policy changes to remake the industry into one worth returning to.

Divided by design

After the Memphis restaurant where 16-year veteran cook Peter DeQuattro worked closed at the start of the pandemic, he managed to secure unemployment benefits, hoping to wait for the restaurant to reopen. However, he had to return to work after applicants were required to provide proof of an active job search in September 2020. Since then, he’s navigated jobs paying less than a living wage while working through chronic back pain, making too much to qualify for Medicare but unable to afford health insurance, and “butting heads” with employers over working conditions and wages. After talking with Nicholson, a longtime colleague and friend, about organizing restaurant employees to improve their industry, he started to initiate dialogues with his colleagues about their pay rates and what they need from their employers.

DeQuattro isn’t alone in his frustrations. Ben Reynolds, an organizer with the national, volunteer-run Restaurant Workers United, said that people are exhausted, not just by the pandemic, but also by the industry’s insistence on maintaining a status quo that’s always been detrimental to restaurant workers, especially those in BOH positions.

“They need the ability to assert themselves collectively and actually have a say in their workplace, whether that’s over basic safety issues, their hours, or harassment or abuse from their managers,” he said.

However, workers face significant obstacles to organizing. The restaurant industry is decentralized, making it difficult to work cohesively, and a revolving door of staff complicates building any worker solidarity. In 2019, the industry had a 78% turnover rate, and that was before a pandemic motivated 33% of its workforce to leave, potentially for good. Further, while front-of-house (FOH) and BOH staff are typically drawn from the same workforce in casual dining establishments, the division between FOH and BOH staff in fine dining establishments often falls along racial lines, with white people primarily in customer-facing positions like servers, hosts, and bartenders, and BIPOC relegated behind kitchen doors. 

“Management has kept that line pretty clear,” Nicholson said. “It has been a big factor in why we haven’t been able to organize. There’s not that feeling of solidarity, and [with] such a disparity between wages, there’s an animosity kind of built into the structure.”

According to a report by NPR, in fine dining restaurants, white employees typically occupy positions with higher-earning salaries, while Latinx, Black, and other workers of color tend to occupy positions with pay closer to the poverty level. The division, some say, is intentionally sustained. 

“It’s amazing how many ongoing legacies of plantation slavery exist in the restaurant industry today, both in the subminimum wage and the notion white people work in the front and people of color in the back,” said Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage and director of the Food Labor Research Center at University of California, Berkeley.

Rebuilding the industry, advocates say, requires challenging how the industry views its workforce and values their labor—like where they belong and what they deserve. jeanie chunn, the national director for RAISE, looked to the example of how Latinx workers seem only ever to be visible as bussers, dishwashers, and cooks in the restaurant environment—behind kitchen doors, out of sight of customers, and given few opportunities for upward mobility. 

“We knew who was back there, and sure enough, it was immigrants,” Nolasco said. “They were the ones bearing this burden of minimum wage jobs and untipped positions, while the rest of our peers were building careers for themselves on the backs of undocumented labor.”

Jayaraman told NPR she has interviewed Latinx bussers who said they helped train newly hired white employees who inevitably went on to earn five times what their Latinx mentors were making within weeks or months.

“We shouldn’t be hiding people of color in the back of the house,” chunn said. “You should be able to start as a dishwasher and become a server or a bartender or the general manager. There should be a pathway to access the most amount of money possible.”

Undocumented and unable to rely on benefits

Despite the rhetoric blaming unemployment benefits for making workers lazy, many BOH workers had very little to no access to state or government assistance throughout the pandemic. However, they still had to manage health risks, threats of eviction, and expenses like child care, school fees, car payments, utilities, and food. Without an income or a safety net, entire households became vulnerable to destitution overnight. Unable to access unemployment benefits or any other targeted government aid, undocumented workers and others who can’t obtain benefits have had to rely on mutual aid and support from community organizations, some of which sprang up in direct response to the overwhelming need. 

In Los Angeles, industry veterans Othón Nolasco and Damián Diaz founded the nonprofit No Us Without You to help feed the city’s undocumented BOH workers, whom the duo counted as longtime friends and colleagues. In the first weekend of the shutdown, they took care of 30 families. Now they provide for more than 1,600 families a week. Many are working at some capacity now, but what they make still isn’t enough to sustain their families while catching up on missed payments and other accruing debt from the shutdown. 

“These families have never taken aid before, not that aid was ever offered to them,” Nolasco said. “They’re used to working for anything they need, whether it was a death in the family back home in Central America or Mexico, or their kids needing new school clothes. All they’ve wanted to do is go back to work.”

The Oakland Workers Fund, a queer, trans, and BIPOC-run mutual aid fund to support out-of-work food service workers unable to receive government aid, has raised more than $180,000 for members of the community. However, fund organizer Samantha Espinoza said this is the bare minimum of what those workers should have received and pointed to the absence of government initiatives to even acknowledge this workforce, much less help them. But this level of mutual aid is difficult to sustain. Nolasco said that donations to No Us Without You have dwindled, and organizers with the Oakland Workers Fund, many of whom were themselves food service workers laid off during the pandemic, are struggling to maintain their own survival outside of their involvement with the fund. 

Still, they’re stepping in and asking those in positions of power to step up. In late August, the fund launched a phone and email zap urging supporters to contact state governors, senators, the president’s office, and the chair of committee to reinstate and extend pandemic unemployment benefits in California and across the country. 

“We are committed to this fight because it is essential to so many people’s survival, including many of our own,” the fund’s organizers said via email.

Other groups are hoping to create change by directly engaging with restaurants. High Road Kitchens, a project of Restaurants Advancing Industry Standards of Employment (RAISE): High Road Restaurants and One Fair Wage, is a feeding program that also launched at the start of the pandemic and works with the restaurants to prioritize race and gender equity within their establishments, which includes taking its race and gender equity training. And in states that don’t require employees to be paid the full minimum wage, restaurants are required to transition to the full minimum wage by the end of five years.

“I think it’s important that we prioritize [restaurants] that actually show commitment to their workers,” chunn said. “And we think that, by building a commitment to race and gender equity, they are really investing in the survival of our industry.”

Reshaping the restaurant industry

Restaurant workers’ refusal to return to the pre-pandemic status quo is perhaps best illustrated by their response to the removal of government support systems. At the beginning of summer, 25 states—all led by Republican governors—ended participation in the federal program for pandemic unemployment benefits to force people back to work, but a report by One Fair Wage and the Food Labor Research Center found that in five of those states (Arizona, New Hampshire, West Virginia, Florida, and Texas), workers did not return to their jobs en masse as governors had expected, despite the loss of benefits. Additionally, 54% of workers surveyed—who had received unemployment benefits and then lost them prematurely due to these policies—stated that the experience of receiving benefits increased their desire for a livable wage at their next job. 

“Without this permanent wage change, workers will not return, and the restaurant industry will never fully reopen and recover,” the report read.

Workers aren’t waiting for restaurants to change on their own, despite justifiable fears about backlash or being blacklisted from large restaurant groups. Those groups do exist to protect the interests of business owners and exploit workers, and members share information with each other. However, more workers are also seeing the benefits of working together to protect their own collective interests. Those who have been able to unionize have managed to obtain critical protections like health insurance and safety procedures. 

After being called back to work in May of last year, Porfirio Oden, a chef de partie at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach, fell in the kitchen and nearly broke his leg. He was only able to receive care because he has health insurance as a union member of Unite Here Local 355. 

“The union got us health insurance,” Oden said. “Otherwise, we’d have to pay for it with the little money that they give us. Without the union, we’re nothing.”

When cook Affron Herring and his colleagues were called back to work at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort in Honolulu after being laid off at the start of the pandemic, Herring’s union, Unite Here Local 5—the largest hospitality union in the state—negotiated with management for personal protective equipment, temperature scans for employees, and the formation of a safety committee made up of workers from different hotel departments that conducts weekly inspections and ensures a safe environment for employees to return to work. 

“We’re the resident experts; we know our spaces better than managers do, and we know what we need to keep ourselves safe,” said Herring, who is part of the hotel safety committee. “All we ask is to be respected as workers.”

Advocates argue further that restaurant workers shouldn’t bear the weight of improving their working conditions and wages without government support. Many insist that federal policy changes, such as raising the minimum wage, are critical to reshaping the industry. The Raise the Wage Act, which was introduced to Congress in late January, would end the subminimum wage for tipped workers and establish a fair federal minimum wage at $15 an hour over a five-year period. The practice of tipping itself (in lieu of full wages from the employer) is a legacy of slavery, popularized after emancipation when formerly enslaved Black people were hired in the hospitality sector to cater to white patrons and relied primarily on tips to survive. The American cultural practice of tipping today, chunn says, is why “customers think that we are their servants because we are their servers.” 

“I guarantee you that if you pay your people, they’ll work for you,” Nicholson said. 

While the act failed to pass with the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill back in March, it’s far from off the table. Similar legislation is moving on the state level, from Illinois to Michigan to Washington, D.C. Advocates say that raising the subminimum wage and allowing for tip-sharing among BOH and FOH workers will raise overall wages for BOH and put protections in place for FOH. Ideally, these changes would also encourage more equity and solidarity among restaurant workers, increasing their ability to collectively bargain with owners.

“I think there’s finally been a realization in many states that there are only two choices at this point,” Jayaraman said. “Either you raise the wage or shrink the industry, because there just aren’t enough workers willing to work for these wages anymore.”

Only seven states—California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Minnesota, Montana, and Alaska—have adopted the model of paying workers a full livable wage, with tip sharing between front and back of house. In those states, chunn said, there is more restaurant growth, higher sales, and more employees.

“If we make [a standard minimum wage] into law, everybody has to raise their menu prices to cover their increased labor costs, and the playing field is equal,” chunn said. “You’re not going to be penalized for trying to compensate your employees.”

If customers started taking notice of inequities in the industry and applying pressure to businesses, advocates say this could also have a considerable effect on reluctant owners. RAISE: High Road Restaurants has action items for consumers to apply pressure for policy change, including signing petitions, patroning participating restaurants, and speaking to the manager. Its #AskTheManager campaign encourages consumers to inquire about wage and race equity in their favorite establishments, like why there aren’t people of color working FOH or whether they pay a full minimum wage with tips on top.

“We all know that consumers love mission-driven businesses that are doing the right thing, that are supporting their employees and providing safe work environments,” chunn said. “Really putting some pressure on businesses would be the best thing people can do right now.”

Frances Nguyen is a freelance writer, editor of the Women Under Siege section (which reports on gender-based and sexualized violence in conflict and other settings) at the Women's Media Center, and a member of the editorial team for Interruptr, an online space for women experts to disrupt discourse in traditionally male-dominated focus areas. She is currently working on a creative nonfiction portfolio on race, identity, and the American Dream.

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