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.

The numbers: The below statistics back up the claim that the industry exploits workers:
  1. Restaurant workers (in addition to other service industry workers) are three times as likely to be living in poverty as workers in non-service industries. (as per Bureau of Labor Statistics.)
  2. Ninety percent of restaurant workers don't get paid sick days. (as per ROC-United.)
  3. Charges of sexual harassment are consistently three times higher in the food services industry as compared to other sectors tracked by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

How has the industry arrived at this point? Although restaurant workers lately have been participating in the walk outs throughout the country, Jayaraman contends that the restaurant industry's lobbying group, the National Restaurant Association (NRA), has been a powerful force in keeping wages down. Indeed, when President Bill Clinton was looking to raise the minimum wage in 1996, the NRA only agreed to support the move if "tipped employees" -- aka servers -- were excluded from the deal. As a result, their minimum wage before tips has been frozen at $2.13 an hour ever since.

"I don't think anyone knew at that point that it was a permanent deal," Jen Kern, the minimum wage campaign coordinator for National Employment Law Project, recently told the Huffington Post. "As these things happen ... they become ingrained. They succeeded in creating this second-class wage system, and people accepted it as the way it's always been."

The National Restaurant Association (NRA) maintains the current model is a welcoming one for workers. In response to being asked about Jayaraman's findings, the trade organization provided a provided a statement that's in keeping with other public declarations it has made. See below:

"The restaurant industry provides valuable jobs to over 13 million Americans that not only fill critical gaps in our workforce but also pay a fair wage to employees. These jobs teach invaluable skills and a strong work ethic that are useful for workers throughout their professional careers. This is an industry of opportunity, which employs more minority managers than any other industry, and where 9 out of 10 salaried restaurant employees started in hourly positions."

What's next? In trying to advocate for restaurant industry workers, Jayaraman says new activism will most definitely help attract attention for industry workers. And so the hope for her is that "the conditions of people preparing the food will be as much a cause for concern as whether the food is organic and properly treated," as she told AOL Jobs.
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