Better Than a Tip Calculator: Join the Food-Labor Conversation by Downloading This App

So your dinner was good. But does your server get paid sick days?

The ROC United Diner's Guide helps users pick restaurants based on labor practices. (Photo: Diverse Images/Getty Images)

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Smartphone apps can help you determine where you might eat a meal and what you might eat at a meal. But beyond the many gripes about service that pepper Yelp reviews, labor issues don’t factor into the greater touchscreen conversation about dining out. Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC United) is trying to change that with its new Diner’s Guide app, a location-based restaurant finder that lists average wages, benefits and upward mobility information for food-industry employees.

Some diners factor sustainability issues into their fish-eating experiences with the help of apps like Seafood Watch—and now they can consider the ethical issues surrounding the employment of the prep cooks, chefs, servers, dishwashers, etc., responsible for bringing that food to the table.

ROC United released a Diner’s Guide in 2012, which was available as a free .pdf download. But cofounder Saru Jayaraman tells TakePart that creating an app to go along with the 2013 guide “makes it easier for folks to have the information at their fingertips when thinking about eating out.” That information includes wages for tipped and non-tipped employees, sick leave policies, and a note about career-advancement opportunities.

If you zoom out on the app’s map interface, color-coded pins dotting the geography of Los Angeles, New York, or another of the nine major U.S. cities covered by the Diner’s Guide will fill your Android or iPhone screen. Gold pins mark restaurants that received ROC’s gold or silver medal, denoting that employees are provided with sustainable wages and/or benefits in three or two, respectively, of the five criteria listed. Establishments that don’t make the grade are marked with red pins, but despite what might seem to be a good vs. bad dichotomy, ROC United insists that the goal isn’t to tell people where they should or shouldn’t eat. “Most importantly,” Jayaraman says, “it is to provide people with an easy way to communicate their values to restaurant management,” both at establishments with labor practices worth celebrating and those that leave something to be desired.

Jayarman tells TakePart that to facilitate the conversation, “We've provided sample tweets in the app for people to send out every time they eat out, and an instructional video to show how one can speak up after a meal—to encourage people to do better or to be supportive of folks doing it well.” So the fact that P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, for example, pays less than $5 per hour to its lowest-earning tipped workers shouldn’t keep users from eating there. “No one is 'good' or 'bad',” as Jayarman puts it. But with that knowledge comes the responsibility to engage, and with one click, you can Tweet “Good food @therealPFChan but as a consumer I value #paidsickdays #livingwage & #equalopportunity for workers! @rocunited #dinersguide.”

As the second-largest private-sector industry, the food-service industry employs around 13 million workers, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 1.3 million more jobs could be added in the course of this decade. To see employment numbers rising in any industry is heartening in the wake of the Great Recession, but the low quality of food-industry jobs can’t be ignored. The federal minimum wage for tipped workers is a mere $2.13, a number that hasn’t budged since 1991; nearly 88 percent of workers aren’t given paid sick days, according to a 2011 ROC United report. Problems like overtime violations and racial bias also plague the industry. Despite all of these labor issues, a mere 2.4 percent of restaurant workers were represented by labor unions in 2011.

The Diner’s Guide app was downloaded more the 2,200 times in the week following its launch, and Jayarman says the app has received numerous positive reviews. With plans to continually update the status of featured restaurants and to expand both the number of listings and the cities covered, ROC United is offering people an easy, user-friendly means of engaging in food-service-industry labor discussion—all for the low, low cost of a free download.

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