Report Shows Shocking Level of Employment Discrimination in Restaurant Industry

Advocacy group finds workers of color earn 56 percent less than white men with equal qualifications.
(Photo: Squaredpixels/Getty Images)
Oct 20, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Forget all the emphasis on farm-to-table produce, the much-publicized elimination of artificial ingredients, and those florid menu descriptions of organic ingredients “artisanally” prepared: America’s restaurants may have come a long way, but in at least one critical respect, they might as well be stuck in 1952.

In an eye-opening report released Tuesday by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, the not-for-profit organization that has been at the forefront of fighting for better working conditions for the nation’s restaurant workers, the group charts the appalling level of discrimination that appears endemic to the industry.

At first glance, the title might appear to overstate the case: Ending Jim Crow in America’s Restaurants: Racial and Gender Occupational Segregation in the Restaurant Industry. Surely, you might imagine, it can’t be as bad as all that, enough to evoke the legacy of Jim Crow and the statutory system of discrimination that pervaded the country, particularly the South, before the civil rights era.

But it doesn’t take long to see that the restaurant industry, which employs 11 million workers and is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the U.S. economy, is operating in something of a time warp. For all its vaunted attention to improving the quality of the food we eat—which has led to, say, a chain such as Subway pledging to eliminate antibiotics from its meat or Panera coming up with a “No No List” of artificial ingredients—the industry seems to have failed to bring that spirit of progressivism to its employment practices.

We’re not just talking about the fast-food industry and its stubborn resistance to adopting a living wage for its workers. The ROC United report covers the entire spectrum, from fine-dining establishments to fast-food takeout, even as it focuses on the industry in California.

On average, white men working in restaurants in California, who are disproportionately more likely to work in front-of-house positions at more expensive restaurants, earn $14.18 per hour. Meanwhile, white women earn $11.30, men of color earn $11.63, and women of color earn $10.13—more than $4 per hour less than white men.

When the report’s authors adjusted for education and language proficiency, the earnings for workers of color were 56 percent lower than for white workers with equal qualifications.

“It’s certainly not a coincidence that the largest employer of people of color is also the absolute worst paying industry in the country,” Saru Jayaraman, founding codirector of ROC United, said in a statement. “And while we know that the restaurant industry can do better, the very limited living-wage jobs available within the restaurant industry are systematically off-limits to people of color and women.”

The reasons for this are many, and as the report’s authors note, require further study for long-term solutions to be found. Some are no doubt bound up with the larger issues surrounding the country’s ongoing struggle to address the persistent effects of a legacy of deeply entrenched racism.

Yet, even as the report offers preliminary recommendations for advancing the cause of equal employment in the industry, such as bias training for restaurant owners and managers as well as free or low-cost training to better equip workers of color for higher-paying jobs, those of us who primarily experience restaurants as consumers would do well to heed the call for greater awareness of the inequities that are plaguing the industry. After all, whether we’re talking about food that’s more sustainably harvested, livestock that’s more humanely raised, or produce that’s locally grown, it’s been consumers who have demanded that the restaurant industry be more conscientious about what it’s serving us. As this latest report shows, it’s time we demand a higher ethical standard when it comes to how the industry is treating women and workers of color as well.