Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of ROC United, says its going to take more than just policy changes to fix the inequality in the restaurant industry.
Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of ROC United, says it's going to take more than just policy changes to fix the inequality in the restaurant industry. Ben Henry

At a press conference yesterday at the Comet Tavern, the Restaurant Opportunity Center United (ROC), a national advocacy organization for restaurant workers, released what it calls “the most comprehensive study ever conducted of the restaurant industry in Seattle.” Most of us toiling away at stoves and server stations already know what it revealed: The pay is generally shit, you don’t get benefits, the hours are long and thankless, and these things are especially true if you’re not a white dude.

Here’s what ROC’s data—compiled through 524 worker surveys and 15 interviews with restaurant workers in King County, along with other industry and government data—shows: Women of color make $4 less an hour than white men. People of color are overrepresented in fast food and underrepresented in fine dining. Within fine dining, people of color overwhelmingly occupy “Tier II” jobs—bussing, hosting, dishwashing, food running, deep prep and similar grunt work. There are significant gender pay gaps and extremely significant racial pay gaps, thanks largely to the aforementioned occupational segregation. The only issue in which there is equality is a general lack of health benefits and access to sick leave.

Unlike the crowd at the press conference, which seemed to be dominated by well-meaning non-restaurant employees (maybe all the industry people were working unpaid overtime and couldn’t make it?), I was not shocked by most of this shit. Sixty percent of restaurant employees worked while they were sick? Like people are really going to take a day off, lose $200 in tips, and claim five hours of “sick time” at $10 an hour? Sorry, but my jaw ain’t dropping. Forty percent of kitchen employees suffered burns and cuts on the job? Chefs love that shit! It’s like a mark of pride for them. Employers at fine dining establishments tend to shoot down African American applicants on sight? Uh, yeah, fine dining is tailor-made for the tastes of snooty white people. Sexual harassment is rampant? Oh, the stories I could tell.

Of all the open secrets about shitty restaurant industry practices quantified by the report, called "Behind the Kitchen Door: The Highs and Lows of Seattle’s Booming Restaurant Economy," the one I was most pleased to see data on was erratic scheduling. Mostly because one of my least favorite troll arguments—that tired “pull yourself up by your bootstraps, get an education, and get a real job” bullshit that seems to plague any discussion on restaurant compensation—is neatly debunked by the fact that 52.5 percent of tipped restaurant workers reported daily changes in their schedule, a practice which, according to the study, “served as a barrier to attending higher education.” Combine that with fact that most restaurant employees juggle multiple jobs to avoid being part of the 42.7 percent of their peers who live below the poverty line, and the argument that it’s all your fault seems even more comical.

While the report’s data wasn’t exactly a revelation, it was a relief. Data is credibility, and ROC’s data proves many of the things we’ve previously had only anecdotal evidence of. Council Member Kshama Sawant spoke, and a trio of lefty city council candidates (Michael Maddux, Tammy Morales, and Jonathan Grant) was in attendance. Noises were definitely being made about equal hiring incentive programs and stiffer penalties for violators of wage theft and sick leave laws, so we could see some improvement depending on how you vote.

But Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of ROC United and author of recent hot-button New York Times editorial “Why Tipping is Wrong,” reminded the audience that it takes more than just policy changes to fix our fucked-up restaurant industry. The implicit racism and sexism that plague the restaurant industry is deep-rooted, and until consumers, employers, and especially us industry people wise up, it will likely continue.