A Frightening Look at D.C.’s Restaurant Industry

| Feb 14, 2011

Just in time for Valentine’s Day — the highest grossing day of the year for restaurants — the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Washington, D.C., (ROC-DC) has released a comprehensive analysis of workplace policies in the city’s restaurant industry. ROC organizations in Los Angeles and Miami also released reports specific to their cities today.

Behind the Kitchen Door: Inequality & Opportunity in Washington, DC’s Thriving Restaurant Industry is the result of a year-long study that included surveys from more than 500 D.C. restaurant workers, in-depth interviews, focus groups and 30 employer interviews. The final report is a frightening look at the policies of an industry central to the city’s economy — and the threat they pose to working families and the community.

Those of us living in D.C. know it’s hard to walk a block in the city’s commercial districts and not see an eating or drinking establishment. That’s because there are more than 2,000 bars and restaurants in the city, and they employ more than 36,000 workers. According to the new report, these businesses have been thriving in recent years, despite the economic recession that has left many restaurants struggling to stay afloat. The growth of D.C.’s restaurant industry has actually outpaced the city’s economy.

Unfortunately, this study shows that the prosperity and success of the restaurant industry hasn’t translated into gains for restaurant workers. To be sure, there are restaurant owners who take good care of their workers with good wages, workplace policies and working conditions. Yet, more often, restaurant owners make a profit on the backs of their workers. Fewer than 14 percent of workers report receiving living wages and benefits. About one-third report having experienced overtime violations, and more than one-third report working “off the clock” without pay. Workers also report a sobering prevalence of discrimination, specifically when it comes to hiring, promotion and disciplinary practices.

To make matters worse, the poor practices of the overwhelming majority of employers have a ripple effect on our community’s public health. Nearly 80 percent of the restaurant workers surveyed say they have no paid sick days. And 59 percent say they have worked sick. D.C. enacted an historic paid sick days law in 2008 — the second of its kind in the nation — but tipped restaurant workers were cut out. As ROC-DC recommends in its report, lawmakers and employers must expand access to paid sick days to employees of all kinds — including tipped workers and others not currently covered by the city’s paid sick days law.

Whether we’re uncorking a bottle of wine in a fine restaurant or enjoying a quick meal at a local diner this Valentine’s Day, let’s remember the role that policymakers, businesses, and consumers can have in influencing change in the restaurant industry. Research the practices of restaurants in your area, ask about paid sick days policies, show some love for the workers who make your restaurant experience possible, and join local fights for better workplace standards so that your server — and the community — will be healthier and more prosperous.