Restaurant work abuse: an unpalatable plate

When you go out to eat at a fancy sit-down restaurant, you assume the staff is well paid and taken care of. I had foolishly assumed that when one tips the wait staff, that the tip is bonus to their hourly wage. This impression is a false impression. During  a recent Greater Minnesota Workforce Center Fundraiser, I listened to Saru Jayaraman, one of the founding member of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. For wait staff in 17 states and two territories, the hourly wage is $2.17. What this means for the wait staff is, if the customer doesn’t tip at least $5, the wait staff hasn’t even reached minimum wage.

The tipping system originated from medieval Europe where rich Lords and Barons would pay their dining servants with tips. During the colonization of the Americas, the practice of tipping was brought with. During the 1800s, an anti-tipping movement caught fire throughout Europe. The anti-tipping movement in the United States was squashed by the restaurant industry arguing that hard workers would make a higher salary. In a 2015 survey of the worst 10 jobs in America, nine were restaurant jobs in which only one job was in fast food.

Aside from being cheated from a minimum wage, wait staff do not have paid sick days or vacation. Workers are reprimanded or fired if they call in sick. The problem is so widespread that most cases of the Norovirus can be traced back to sick employees. Norovirus is transmitted by infected diarrhea and vomit. Workers with vomiting and severe diarrhea frequently show up to work because if they don’t work, they don’t get paid. In a case in Miami Beach, Florida a cook worked for over a week with typhoid fever. If diseases of antiquity weren’t the worst of it, worker abuses are rife in the restaurant industry.

No one should be harassed or inappropriately touched while working. Unfortunately women and people of color are all too frequently the targets of sexual, racial, and other verbal harassment. These abuses often go unreported in fear of retaliation from management.

Restaurant workers are also often victims of wage theft. Wage theft in the restaurant industry takes many forms, the most common being working off the clock. Workers in fear of losing their jobs work without compensation and workers compensation protection by working off the clock. Wage theft also occurs commonly in paychecks by forcing workers to take automated payments via a pre-paid credit card, which incur fees for cash withdrawal.

So what can you the consumer do to help end restaurant worker abuses?

Take a proactive approach when eating out at your favorite restaurants. Ask management if they pay their wait staff at least minimum wage. If the restaurant doesn’t pay minimum wage, consider either eating somewhere else or make sure you leave a tip that fairly compensates the wait staff for their time. Leave your tips in the form of cash rather than a credit card swipe. Often restaurants will push credit card processing fees onto the wait staff, furthering wage theft. Always remember this golden rule, If you don’t have money to tip, you don’t have money to eat out.

And last but not least, join the movement to raise the minimum wage.

Photo: Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United) Facebook.