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Behind the kitchen doors: risks and low pay

A new survey shows that many restaurant workers are not sharing in the prosperity of their industry. (Mark Finkenstaedt for The Washington Post)

Despite the recession, the restaurant industry is thriving. Most of its workers, however, are not.

A new report from the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, a non-profit that advocates better wages and work conditions for restaurant staff, revealed that 90 percent of industry workers are not offered health insurance or sick days, 67 percent come to work sick and 38 percent are forced to work off the clock.

Earnings also lag. Restaurant workers around the country on average made $12,868 in 2008 compared to $45,371 for the total private sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The authors surveyed more than 2,500 workers and 150 employers in five cities: Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, New York and Portland, Maine.

The reports tell two big stories, said Jose Oliva, ROC’s national policy coordinator: “One, the restaurant industry is resilient, even in the face of this great recession. The other is that the kind of jobs that are being created are not the kind of jobs we want to have in America when we come out of the recession.”

Like all businesses, restaurants took a hit during the the economic downturn. But by July 2009, growth already had returned. This year, the National Restaurant Association projects that the industry will employ nearly 13 million people. Revenues will rise 2.5 percent to $580 billion or 4 percent of the gross domestic product.

Update: "This report paints a distorted image of the restaurant industry and its employees while pushing the ROC's agenda," said Mike Donohue, a spokesman for the National Restaurant Association. He cited data that 32 percent of adults get their first job experience in a restaurant and many jobs lead to management and ownership. "The restaurant industry is proud of its diversity and unparalleled record of opportunity."

The industry does provide some “good jobs,” which ROC defines as ones that provide pay a living wage, provide benefits and opportunities for advancement. But in all five regions studied, researchers found that white workers disproportionately claimed them. Workers of color, meanwhile, were concentrated in the industry’s “bad jobs,” where the median hourly wage was $11.50 per hour -- or $3.20 less per hour than their white counterparts earned.

When it comes to waiters and bussers, the federal minimum wage is $2.13. There has not been an increase for tipped workers since 1991. In May, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) introduced the WAGES Act, which would increase the tipped minimum wage to $3.75 per hour three months after enactment. That rate would rise to $5.50 per hour by 2012.

The industry’s bad jobs hurt more than just workers; they harm society at large, Oliva said. Low wages and lack of job security lead to increased reliance on social assistance programs, an indirect subsidy to employers engaging in poor practices. For example, ROC reported that 26.5 percent of restaurant workers said they or a family member had visited an emergency room without being able to pay for treatment.

-- Jane Black

By Jane Black  |  February 10, 2010; 2:50 PM ET
 | Tags: Jane Black, restaurants  
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Yesterday I read Lincoln Center in NYC is building a $20 million restaurant. Will this be staffed with workers making $12,000?

Posted by: fran426 | February 11, 2010 10:19 AM | Report abuse

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