Restaurant training module forces workers to fund attacks on themselves
Six U.S. Senators, led by Democrat Elizabeth Warren, are pressing the NRA to explain why it is using worker money to pay for lobbying against workers. | Shutterstock

In an instance of underhanded corporate exploitation of its own workers, the nation’s top restaurant lobby, the National Restaurant Association, charges workers entering the industry $15 each for a required online class on safe food practices. It then uses that money to lobby against its own workers.

How can the National Restaurant Association get away with that? Because many of its member restaurants order workers to take NRA’s “ServSafe” program before they get their first paycheck and the money for the online program is deducted from that. And the NRA won’t tell them what their money pays for.

In short, the NRA is using workers’ money to fight against workers.

ServSafe was independent until the National Restaurant Association bought it in 2016. The lobby, which the union-backed Restaurant Opportunities Center calls “the other NRA,” has more than 500,000 members, including major chains such as McDonald’s and Chick-Fil-A.

Now, however, an effort by a worker-advocacy group is trying to offer a neutral option: A food-safety program owned by restaurant workers.

“Just.Safe.Food,” a cooperative created by One Fair Wage, a national organization based in Massachusetts, is being promoted as not only cheaper ($10) but free from the conflict of unwittingly funding efforts to curb wages, oppose health-care expansion, and fight organizing.

“The National Restaurant Association was founded to suppress service workers’ wages. But…most people didn’t know the National Restaurant Association is stealing from its low-wage workers to fund that anti-worker lobbying,” said One Fair Wage President Saru Jayaraman.

“Restaurants like Applebee’s and Olive Garden make millions of dollars by paying restaurant workers a federal subminimum wage of just $2.13 an hour. The fact that they fund lobbying efforts to kill laws raising wages by charging workers for food-safety training is beyond outrageous.”

The ServSafe program used to be run by a charity, the National Registry Of Food Safety Professionals, loosely tied to the restaurant association. But in 2016, the association bought the operation and made it into an indirect fundraising vehicle.

After that, state restaurant associations in Illinois, California, Florida, and Texas successfully lobbied for changes expanding food-safety training from restaurant managers to all “food “handlers,” from cooks and bartenders to waiters and even those who bus tables.

“Food handler training is required in Illinois [but] not ServSafe specifically,” One Fair Wage Director of Policy and Communications Alex Morash told The Labor Paper. “Most employers use ServSafe. It has a monopoly presence.”

Nationally, more than three million workers have taken such training, generating millions for the restaurant industry’s lobbying. The National Restaurant Association’s spending on politics and lobbying more than doubled in recent years, according to tax filings the New York Times analyzed.

The “other NRA,” as Jayaraman calls it, contributed to politicians from both major parties, conservative think tanks, and state restaurant associations. In 2022 alone, it spent $2.1 million on lobbying, according to data analyzed by the Center for Responsive Politics.

“I’m sitting up here working hard, paying this money so that I can work this job, so I can provide for my family,” said Mysheka Ronquillo, 40, a Carl’s Jr. and school cafeteria cook and a labor organizer in California, speaking to the Times. “And I’m giving y’all money so y’all can go against me?”

Participating in Jan. 25 protests outside restaurant association offices in Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, and New York, One Fair Wage seems part of a resistance, in the streets and in kitchens, in labor halls, and the halls of government.

So One Fair Wage is urging elected officials to pass laws repealing mandatory worker contributions to ServSafe and is asking state attorneys general and the IRS to investigate if the National Restaurant Association violated tax laws by mixing training and lobbying funds.

Nationally, there are political headwinds to such reforms. One Fair Wage reported data shows the National Restaurant Association contributed about $2 million directly to the campaigns of current federal lawmakers: 11 Democrats and 39 Republicans in the Senate and 42 Democrats and 125 Republicans in the House.

“Any elected official who claims to care about workers should immediately reject National Restaurant Association lobbying money, and return those stolen funds to the workers fighting to raise wages for all Americans,” Jayaraman said. “Across the country, the American people think wages are too low–and want a raise. It’s time politicians stop listening to the owners of major restaurant chains, and start listening to the American people.”

At least one top politician has listened: House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., pledged to give away any contributions his campaign received from the restaurant lobby.

Meanwhile, Morash said, One Fair Wage is in the process of getting national accreditation for Just.Safe.Food., designed to educate workers on safe food storage, handling, and preparation. After it’s approved–in three-to-six months, he said–it will be up to the employers or the workers to use it, depending on their state.

“In Illinois, there is a discussion among legislators about requiring employers to pay for this training rather than workers,” Marash added.

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Bill Knight
Bill Knight

Bill Knight is a freelance writer, syndicated columnist, and contributor to the Peoria monthlies Community Word and The Labor Paper.