Woman Goes 'Behind The Kitchen Door' And Exposes Restaurant Industry

Some 13 million Americans -- 1 out of every 12 workers -- are employed in the restaurant industry. Yet it's arguably the worst field when it comes to working conditions and pay, according to Saru Jayaraman, the Director of the Food Labor Research Center at University of California, Berkeley and the author of "Behind the Kitchen Door," an expose of the industry.

The founder of the 12-year-old Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a nonprofit advocacy group for restaurant workers, Jayaraman (pictured above) and her ROC-United staff have studied the government data, conducted surveys and interviewed thousands of workers, some of them working at fast food joints, others at four-star eateries. Their finding: Pervasive misery.

A Heartbreaking Life in the Kitchen: Workers are paid an average annual salary of $15,092, and receive no sick pay; sexual harassment and poverty are common. "Almost every restaurant in America has at least one worker who is homeless, verging on losing their house or sleeping on someone's couch. It's that extreme," she said in an interview with AOL Jobs.

In her book, released in February, Jayaraman tells the heart-breaking story of Woong Chang, a server at an upscale French restaurant in Washington D.C. He contracted the H1N1 virus, also known as "swine flu," but without sick pay, he kept working. "Over two and a half weeks it just kept getting worse and worse. ... I couldn't eat anything, no solids," he's quoted as saying. But "there was no thought of paid sick time. I worked for as long as I could because I couldn't afford not to. They just said OK."

The Industry's Minority Problem: Workers of color have it even harder; they're more likely to be working in the kitchens and are paid almost $4-an-hour less than white workers, according to data provided by the ROC. Jayaraman says it's common for workers of color to be skipped over for promotions and management. "There's an expectation that white workers will be better at selling the food," Jayaraman told AOL Jobs.

In her book, Jayaraman cites the story of a woman identified only as Maya, who applied to be an assistant manager at the same upscale Washington, D.C., steakhouse where she was working as a hostess. By that point, Maya had already put in years in the industry and also had helped out at the steakhouse, managing other workers and handling invoices. She was even given the title of, "weekend office manager." But she was passed over for the promotion; a "light-skinned man from the Middle East," who had "never worked in a fine-dining restaurant, didn't know the restaurant's online reservation system, didn't even know how to sell wine" got the job, she said.