Good, bad, ugly of restaurant work featured at ‘Kitchen Ethical’ event – National Consumers League

By Michell K. McIntyre, Director of NCL’s Special Project on Wage Theft

How would you like to work for a week and at the end of your pay period receive a voided check? Or have to choose between going to work with the flu or not being able to pay for groceries for your children? Or have to rely on the kindness of customers to cover 70 percent of your wages or know that management it taking a cut of your tips? For too many restaurant workers, that’s reality and is just the tip of the iceberg.

Earlier this month, NCL co-hosted Kitchen Ethical with Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United). Kitchen Ethical concentrated on the good, the bad and the ugly of the restaurant industry.  The event consisted of two panels: Success & the Ethical Employer – with two DC-based restaurant owners who believe and provide all their employees with paid sick days and employ ethical work practices; and Taking Off the Gloves – with restaurant workers sharing their stories of wage theft abuses, trying to survive on the federal tipped minimum wage of $2.13 an hour and the real consequences of the lack of paid sick days.

As someone who has never worked in the restaurant industry, it’s hard to imagine working and not receiving a paycheck. As consumers, we have some power to affect change in a way that fines and regulations are not. Restaurants need customers in order to be successful, and — if customers demand change — then owners will have to listen.

Did you know that if you leave your tip on your credit card, your server might not receive their tip? Last year, celebrity chef and restaurant owner Mario Batali and his business partners were successfully sued for $5.25 million for a tip skimming scheme, a wage theft abuse. Unfortunately, this is not a one-time occurrence but is something that probably happens in a large portion of restaurants in the nation. But if we tip in cash, we can help eliminate this form of wage theft.

The lack of paid sick days not only puts workers in jeopardy but it also puts all consumers at risk. With the current flu epidemic at near record highs, the lack of paid sick days becomes a public health issue as well as a food safety issue. Who knows how safe or germ-free your food is if either your server or chef is sick?

For about 22 years, since 1991, the federal tipped minimum wage has been stuck at an appalling $2.13 an hour. According to NCL’s survey, released on the same day as Kitchen Ethical, 87 percent of consumers agree that it is time to raise the tipped minimum wage. Tipped workers are supposed to make up the remainder of their wage with tips from their customers. According to ROC-United’s 2011 Behind the Kitchen Door study, the median wage for restaurant workers is $8.90 an hour and based on a 40 hour week comes to just under the poverty line for a family of three. Any way you slice it, it’s not enough to survive on.

So what can we do? If there is only one thing you remember when eating out, let it be that as customers, we can affect change in this vital industry that desperately needs it.  Workers’ health and well-being not to mention livelihood are put in danger when unethical business practices are allowed to flourish. Public health and food safety suffer when business owners cut corners and deny their workers paid sick days and worker survival is at a great risk when the government prohibits poverty level wages and wage theft abuses are permitted. We, as voters, need to encourage our representatives to pass worker friendly legislation. As consumers, we need to demand that places we patronize treat their workers with the respect and dignity. No worker should have to work while sick, be paid a poverty wage, or worry that their employer is cheating them out of their hard-earned money.

Check out video clips from Kitchen Ethical.