Groups battle “Jim Crow” segregation in restaurant industry

Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United) released today the results of a study conducted in collaboration with Dr. Chris Benner of the University of California, Santa Cruz and the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, entitled, “Ending Jim Crow in America’s Restaurants: Racial and Gender Occupational Segregation in the Restaurant Industry.”

While Jim Crow regulated the enforced separation between white and African- American patrons in restaurants, today restaurant workers are effectively separated by race and gender by a partition between livable-wage and poverty-wage positions. A joint project of ROC United and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights will establish the ‘Restore Oakland Center’ in East Oakland as a programmatic intervention to confront this issue.

The restaurant industry employs nearly 11 million workers and is one of the fastest growing sectors of the U.S. economy. Despite the industry’s growth, restaurant workers occupy seven of the ten lowest-paid occupations reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the economic position of workers of color in the restaurant industry is particularly precarious. Restaurant workers experience poverty at nearly three times the rate of workers overall, and workers of color experience poverty at nearly twice the rate of white restaurant workers.

“It’s certainly not a coincidence that the largest employer of people of color is also the absolute worst paying industry in the country,” said Saru Jayaraman, founding co-director of ROC United. “And while we know that the restaurant industry can do better, the very limited living-wage jobs available within the restaurant industry are systemically off-limits to people of color and women. That’s why over the last decade of organizing and conducting research on the restaurant industry, occupational segregation by race has emerged as one of the highest priority challenges faced by restaurant workers nationwide.”

By focusing on the nation’s largest restaurant industry, California, which includes several cities that are repeatedly named among the top dining destinations nationwide and one of the most diverse populations of any state in the country, the findings in this report have national significance.

Based on government data analysis, a limited pool of employer interviews, and interviews with experts, the initial findings explored in this report suggest the need for further research to more deeply understand the restaurant industry’s occupational segregation problem and how to address it.

Key findings include:

The greatest racial and gender wage inequality is in the highest wage occupational categories-namely fine-dining server and bartender positions. The restaurants with the highest wages and greatest number of employees had the highest rates of segregation in both Front-of-the-House service positions and Back-of-the-House kitchen positions.

Worker interviews point to real structural barriers that workers of color face in accessing livable-wage fine-dining service positions, including lack of training, social networks, transportation, childcare, interactions with the criminal justice system, and more. Those real barriers result in employers lacking pools of candidates of color for hiring into fine-dining service positions.

In California, Latinos experience the highest levels of directly observable occupational segregation, with substantial under-representation in the higher-paying server and bartender occupations, while African Americans are largely absent altogether from meaningful participation in full-service restaurant occupations and overrepresented in limited-service/fast-food occupations.

As a result of this segregation, overall after adjusting for education and language proficiency, workers of color receive 56percent lower earnings when compared to equally qualified white workers. Women of color, on average, earned 71percent of what white men earn, amounting to a $4-per-hour wage differential.

States like California that have higher minimum wages have lower gender and race wage inequality than the national average, but the disparity is still quite high.

The report also offers possible solutions specific to workers, employers and customers, including:

For employers: incentives, mandates, and prohibitions to combat bias, as well as specific implicit bias trainings as have been adopted by a some police forces and other sectors to ward against the perpetuation of inequity.

For workers: Policymakers should support workforce development programs such as ROC’s COLORS Hospitality for Workers (CHOW) program that provide free or low cost, quality Front-of-the-House hard and soft skills training for all workers, but primarily targeted at workers of color and women, to advance within the industry.

For customers: education and engagement to enlist the support of like-minded consumers in creating a climate where racial equity is lauded and rewarded, including ad campaigns and direct customer engagement with employers regarding fair hiring policies.

There is a coalition of groups including ROC United, the Center for Social Inclusion, and Race Forward, that is proposing to conduct deeper research to understand the multiple layers of implicit and explicit biases that limit opportunities for workers of color. This research would, in turn, point to local policy solutions to pilot in the city of Oakland.

In addition, in partnership with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights (EBC), ROC United is developing the Restore Oakland Center as a comprehensive program that will address the barriers to livable-wage employment experienced by workers of color in the Bay Area. Restore Oakland is envisioned to be a multi-service center located in East Oakland that will house a restaurant run by ROC that serves as a home for the CHOW job-training program, incubation of worker-owned enterprises, wrap-around services such as healthcare and childcare, affordable housing, and a restorative-justice space facilitated by EBC. The Restore Oakland Center recently received a $1 Million investment by an anonymous donor to the San Francisco Foundation, as well as a $500,000 investment from the Google Foundation.

“Through these integrated programs and services, Restore Oakland will provide space and create opportunities for Oakland residents, particularly formerly incarcerated people and their families, to achieve economic stability and self-empowerment through an industry that can offer security and long-term growth,” said Zachary Norris, Executive Director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.

The full report can be found here.

Photo: Restaurant Opportunities Centers United.