Why are working conditions for restaurant employees so bad?

Why is that working conditions for restaurant employees are so dismal? This eye-opening Salon article documents the grim details. Nearly one in ten workers in the U.S. is employed by the restaurant industry. And yet, consider the following:

— Union status among restaurant employees is exceedingly rare. According to one source quoted in the article, perhaps one percent of private sector restaurants are organized.

— Close to 90 percent of restaurant employees receive no paid sick days, vacation, or health insurance.

— Pay in the restaurant sector is appallingly low. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, among all employment categories, restaurant workers receive the lowest wages. In twelve states, workers who receive tips, like waiters or bartenders, are subject to a shockingly low minimum wage of $2.13 per hour — the lowest wage allowable by federal law.

— Employers routinely and increasingly violate the meager protections restaurant workers have, by illegally requiring tip pooling and engaging in wage theft.

— Customers are not so awesome, either. A significant number of customers undertip or refuse to tip at all, even though servers depend on tips as part of their wages. Customer’s reasons refusing to tip, as cited in the article, range from religious justifications,to libertarian arguments, to not liking the music the restaurant was playing, to not being turned on by the server’s boobs.

The a-hole customers that servers have to deal with were brought to mind the other day when I was reading this post by movie blogger Self-Styled Siren. In a film quiz, the Siren was asked to name “The classic movie moment everyone loves except me.” Her answer: this Jack Nicholson scene from Five Easy Pieces. Quoth the Siren: “Oh, you’re picking on an overworked, underpaid, middle-aged waitress. Vive la révolution!” You said it, sister! I always found that scene to be cruel and offensive — smug, male, upper middle class hipster entitlement at its most obnoxious.

In the scene I linked to, Jack Nicholson provides a case study of how not to treat a hard-working, undoubtedly stressed out and low paid restaurant worker. But how can you do an anti-Nicholson? In other words, what can you as a consumer do to help the waiters and the other restaurant staff who work so hard to serve you, cook for you, and clean up after you, day after day after day? Well, at minimum, they deserve simple human kindness and politeness — please and thank you; tolerance and forbearance when they screw up (hey, it happens, and we all do it); and decent tips (20% minimum).

You can also make an effort to patronize restaurants that treat their employees ethically. One way you can learn more about such restaurants is by checking out the guide to ethical eating prepared by ROC United, an organization that advocates on behalf of restaurant workers. The guide provides information on wage, benefit, and promotion practices at popular restaurants in nine major U.S. cities. The PDF of their guide is here; you can also download the iPhone app here and the Android app here.

I strongly urge you to check it out. Look: as Portlandia famously satirized (see below), your average foodie will ask way more questions about how humane the conditions were of the chicken they’re about to eat, then about the working conditions of waiter who is right in front of them. And I get that! I care about the humane treatment of animals, too — that’s why I don’t eat them. But since many of us taking the initiative to investigate the conditions of the food that ends up on our tables, shouldn’t we also care about the workers who help put it there?

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee