Widespread Inequality in the Restaurant Industry Means Hardship for Women Workers

by | Feb 13, 2012 | Fair Pay

Cross-posted from the Huffington Post.

There are more than 10 million restaurant workers in the United States. The majority are women. These are the hosts and hostesses who greet us, the waiters and waitresses who serve us, the bartenders who fill our drink orders, the attendants and dishwashers who clean up after us, set up our tables, and more.

Yet, despite the important role restaurant workers play in our lives and our economy, the restaurant industry provides some of the lowest-wage jobs in the nation – leaving many workers and their families living in poverty. And as a powerful new report reveals, these low wages are just one of many challenges workers in this industry face.

The report, Tipped Over the Edge: Gender Inequity in the Restaurant Industry, was produced by the Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC), the National Partnership for Women & Families and 11 other women’s and worker organizations. It looks at widely accepted practices within the restaurant industry – based on U.S. Census data and more than 4,300 worker surveys – revealing harmful trends and recommending modest, common sense solutions.

As the report explains, the restaurant industry is the only industry that has a wage gap established by law, which results in significantly lower wages for women workers than for men. Non-tipped workers, such as cooks, are 52 percent male and they are paid at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Tipped workers, on the other hand, are 66 percent female and they are guaranteed only a “sub-minimum” wage of just $2.13 per hour. Tips are supposed to make up the difference but, not surprisingly, often they don’t. This means that many restaurant workers, particularly women, and their families, are forced to try to survive on poverty-level wages.

If having to live paycheck to paycheck isn’t hard enough, 90 percent of the restaurant workers surveyed also don’t have a single paid sick day to recover from common illnesses like the flu – meaning that when illness strikes, they have to choose between already limited and much-needed income and their health. As a result, more than two-thirds report they have gone to work sick. And as the report documents, many workers say that they or a coworker have been fired simply for getting sick. This not only threatens the fragile economic security of these workers and their families, but also the public’s health.

Restaurant workers also have little to no control over their schedules, according to the report. Many don’t know from one week to the next what shifts or hours they will be working. They are forced to work longer or different hours than planned, or they are sent home early because business is slow. This unpredictability and income uncertainty would be challenging for any worker, but it can be especially difficult for women who have children and caregiving responsibilities. Setting up child care, planning for school and other activities, and taking care of a sick child can be next to impossible without the control and flexibility that paid sick days and predictable, advanced scheduling provide.

These are only a few of the appalling practices documented in Tipped Over the Edge. Restaurant workers also face rampant sexual harassment – which the report says is widely accepted and rarely prevented – discrimination and few opportunities for advancement.

We – ROC and the other organizations that produced this report – propose very reasonable steps to create a more just restaurant industry for workers and their families. The recommendations include increasing the sub-minimum wage to help close the gender gap and make wages more fair, establishing a national policy standard to allow restaurant workers to earn paid sick days, enacting legislation that would promote greater control over scheduling so workers can manage work and family responsibilities, and providing ongoing training to help prevent sexual harassment.

Given the seriousness of the inequality and hardships among workers in the industry, restaurant owners and legislators should waste no time in advancing all of these recommendations. Existing legislation like the Healthy Families Act, the Paycheck Fairness Act and efforts to raise minimum and sub-minimum wages should be top priorities.

If as a nation we are serious about getting our economy and families back on track, then we must heed the warnings and recommendations offered here, so millions of workers can provide for their families and continue holding jobs. As an industry that is experiencing significant growth, employs millions of women and yet, at the same time, is obviously suffering from a culture of inequity and unacceptable practices, our nation’s restaurants are good places to start.