Interview with ROC United’s National Research Director
Due to the power of the National Restaurant Association, the federal tipped minimum wage has been frozen at $2.13 an hour since 1991. As a result, tipped restaurant workers — overwhelmingly women — use food stamps at double the rate of the rest of the nation’s workforce, and are three-times as likely to live in poverty.
A dismal 20 percent of restaurant jobs pay a living wage, and women, people of color, and immigrants are often excluded from these living-wage positions, as reported by Anya Sacharow (April 26, 2013), “Why Don’t More Foodies Care About Restaurant Workers?” Time.
Seventy percent of servers are women. Since a living wage is not guaranteed, and women are forced to depend on tips, they frequently have to put up with sexual harassment from customers, coworkers, and management. The EEOC has targeted the restaurant industry as the single largest source of sexual harassment charges filed by women with a rate five times higher than other industries. See more at: http://rocunited.org/one-fair-wage/#sthash.ETQZGHse.dpuf.
Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United’s mission is to improve wages and working conditions for the nation’s restaurant workforce. Teofilo Reyes, ROC’s National Research Director, said that in general, ROC sees a very high rate of wage and hour violations for immigrant workers — individuals not being paid overtime as high as 60 percent and individuals who are forced to work off the clock without pay, and work eight hours straight without a break, each in the 40 percent range.
“For immigrants who tend to work in the back of the house (kitchen) in major cities, there really is no such thing as a break. Even more broadly in the restaurant industry, the people who take breaks are the people who smoke and there is this unwritten acceptance of smoking as a way to take a break,” said Reyes.
Reyes acknowledged that ROC sees restaurant owners accumulating wealth while their employees are not paid a living wage — either the minimum wage or slightly higher depending on the local market. Nationally, the median wage for restaurant workers is $9.20 per hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
There are times when there are overtime violations when the minimum wage goes below the hourly rate or when employees are forced to work off the clock. “A lot of work is done off the clock — when they come into work before their shift starts and then they clock out at the end of their shift and then there is work required to do before they can leave. Overtime and minimum wage violations come from that,” he said.
With tipped workers, ROC sees a lot of tip shaving, “workers needing to provide a certain percentage of their tips to management so they are not allowed to retain their tips. That is where the greater wage and hour violations come from,” said Reyes.
A small group of restaurant owners bring workers over to the U.S. themselves. Some undocumented workers qualify as victims of human trafficking.
There are places that force people to come in and live at the restaurant — “workers accumulate a certain amount of debt to the restaurant to come to the U.S. and then have to pay that debt off to the restaurant. Many of these workers will sleep in housing paid for by the restaurant, and have to work around the clock,” said Reyes.
There is a much higher percentage of undocumented workers working in the industry but that would not necessarily qualify as victims of trafficking. Trafficked workers are “a very vulnerable population, if owners themselves have been involved in bringing them in or helping them pay their way to a trafficker to get them there. The workers have a debt they are required to pay; if they are not able to pay, their families at home might be liable to pay what the owners see as their debt,” he said. This does occur, but the majority are undocumented workers who don’t have documentation and might not speak out about bad working conditions and more common forms of exploitation. This is a different exploitation than the trafficking cases.
Reyes shared these national tiplines for reporting immigrant abuse: National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights: 510-465-1984; an OSHA hotline: 1-800-321-OSHA (6742); National Human Trafficking Hotline: 888 3737 888; National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233. Unitedwedream.org is also a good resource.
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net