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Center for Labor Research and Education

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In the kitchen, injustice thrives

New York Daily News

Our food service workers deserve higher wages and benefits like paid sick leave

Since Jan. 14, New York has been in the midst of Restaurant Week, which will last through Friday. For many of us, it’s an opportunity to check out a restaurant we’ve never tried before at a lower price. This year, though, I ask that you take Restaurant Week a step further and go behind the kitchen doors to learn about the workers who help prepare and serve your food at a high cost to themselves, our economy and our health.

Since 1991, the minimum wage in the U.S. for those deemed “tipped workers” has been frozen at $2.13 an hour. Sure, some workers on some nights earn well above that — but many don’t. Across the industry, more than 86% of workers are at or near the poverty level. In fact, food service workers use food stamps at twice the rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce.

That means that the people helping put food on your plate at some of the fanciest restaurants in New York literally can’t afford to feed their own families without government help.

And it’s unfortunate that Restaurant Week falls right in the middle of flu season, since 90% of restaurant workers don’t have paid sick days. If you earn only $2.13 an hour and have no savings and no paid sick days, you have no choice but to come to work ill.

In fact, if you don’t come to work, you might get fired. So it’s no surprise that two-thirds of our nation’s cooks, bussers and servers report working while sick. In fact, a 2011 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 12% of almost 500 food service workers surveyed had experienced vomiting and diarrhea on two or more shifts in the previous year. Research suggests that between 48% to 93% of all foodborne norovirus (what is sometimes called the “stomach flu”) outbreaks may be tracked back to sick food service workers.

It would not be enough for paid sick days legislation to allow restaurant workers to swap shifts with another worker when they are sick; would we ask a lawyer to come in on a Saturday because he took a sick day on a Tuesday?

For all they put up with, talented restaurant workers also struggle to get promotions to higher wages and benefits. More than 75% of food service workers report that they have never had the opportunity to apply for a promotion. This lack of job mobility is especially pronounced for workers of color and immigrants.

The food service industry is the fastest-growing segment of the American economy. Including restaurant workers, farmworkers and the packing and delivery jobs in between, one in five private-sector workers is employed in the food service business. The low standards pervasive in this industry should be a shame to us all.

I’m not saying you should stop going out to eat. But when you do, think about the workers who make your meal possible.

You can take action. Yes, you should tip more. A 20% tip is a good start.

An organization I helped start, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, has created a diners guide and smartphone app to help you figure out if restaurants give workers paid sick days, opportunities for promotion and at least $5 an hour minimum for tipped workers. If they don’t, we give you tools to talk to management and advocate for change.

Individuals alone won’t alleviate systemic injustices. We need to demand higher minimum wages for tipped workers and guaranteed paid sick days for all workers. Some progress is being made: Congress is considering a minimum wage increase for tipped workers, while here in New York, the City Council is considering paid sick days legislation.

But the first step is awareness. When you’re eating out for Restaurant Week, don’t just open your mouth — open your eyes and become part of the solution.