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

Saru Jayaraman uncovers workplaces of heartbreak and poverty.

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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Her book is MOSTLY highlighting the fact that most food service workers DO NOT GET SICK DAYS, PAID VACATIONS OR ANY BASIC BENEFITS, and the fact that they should get an education in order to work in other fields is (B.S.) not really the problem here.....
Most civilized (developped) countries in the world are ahead of us and offer at least 3 to 6 sick days and some paid vacations to ALL WORKERS because it is federally mandated in these countries, maybe we should be ashamed to not disregard special interests groups and mandate the same rights at the federal level in a country that claims to be adavanced and "LOOKED UPON".???

October 16 2013 at 6:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

What did see expose how bad curry stinks

October 14 2013 at 1:47 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

While I am all for higher wages and better treatment of any worker, in any industry, one thing that needs to be considered is that so many of these "resturant" workers are actually "fast food" workers. The problem arises, that these people are expecting to make a living working at McDonalds, Wendys, or Jack in the Box. These uneducated drop-outs think they are going to make, or deserve to make, $50 or $60K a year serving burgers and fries. They believe they are entitled to wages equal to those made by people who have gone to school and earned a degree that begets a higher, 5 figure salary. I'm sorry, but a fast food worker is supposed to be a highschool kid working a few hours a week, not a mother of 6, 28 years old with 5 "baby Daddies" that won't take responsibility for the kids and don't have jobs themselves. When the most difficult part of the job is remembering to ask "would you like fries with that", you can't expect to be making much more than minimum wage. Unless you are a supervisor/manager or even an owner, the fast food industry should not be your highest aspiration. Stay in school, don't get pregnant/make someone pregnant, graduate highschool at least, get some higher education, college or vocational/technical school, and then get a well paying job. Then expect higher wages and benefits that can support a family. Until then, "I'll have a double meat cheesburger with grilled onions, jalpenos, and bacon, fries and a medium diet coke, to go."

October 14 2013 at 1:09 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to rbmeoe's comment

Your arrogant, condescending comments are irrelevant considering she used UPSCALE RESTUARANTS as main examples. As for fast food restuarants, granted these are jobs for school kids starting out, and while there are many folks like you describe working these jobs, you ignorantly stereotype the counter help. In the real world, there are people in this economy that have lost their substantial salaries and have been forced to swallow their pride in favor of staying off assistance and making an honest living. "I'll have a double meat cheesburger with grilled onions, jalpenos, and bacon, fries and a medium diet coke, to go." Too bad you can't get a little humanity to go with it

October 14 2013 at 3:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

People who work at fast food restaurants ARE NOT TIPPED EMPLOYEES. They make an hourly wage. They are protected by a federal minimum. People working at the 4 star eateries make $2.13 an hour. That is only enough to cover taxes while they are on the clock, so servers NEVER (unless you consider 3 or 4 dollars a paycheck, and with overtime. ) GET PAYCHECKS. In addition to that, many servers are HIGHLY EDUCATED. They work many odd jobs just to cover student loans.
The comments you made make it obvious you have never worked in food service.

October 25 2013 at 9:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

In the case of Maya, a hostess (in many restaurants a starting position with the exception of the lead also known as the matire'd) who upon occasion is tasked as the "weekend office manager" may not be qualified as an assistant manager .Office managers collect and log the receipt for the day and do the logistics for supplies, the weekend person would collect the receipts and leave notes for the weekday primary to make orders. So why does walking customers to there tables and sometimes collecting receipts on weekends make her management material.. a degree in restaurant management in her back pocket?

October 14 2013 at 11:50 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

whats doing here? that is why all the problem. It seems there is none in USA of USA people? disgusting.

September 25 2013 at 12:05 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

And yes.... She is so right! You bust your butt for what you do make. I work every Saturday and Sunday to make ends meat. Add that to my busy schedule. I have read all the post and for the most part everyone is right. Servers work for every dime they make. Why do we do it?? For the cash on a daily basis.

September 24 2013 at 11:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Michel,I am also looking job.Please,help me.

September 24 2013 at 11:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

**** man. She is so right...

September 24 2013 at 11:28 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Yes, servers make $2.13 per hour. Yes, good servers can make $100+ a shift, if they bust their butt and maintain that pace the entire shift. Serving, if done well, is a VERY physical job, that must be done professionally and with a smile to make decent money at it. But.... a good server gets NO paycheck (because the taxes from the tips are taken out of that $2.13 per hour check and credit card tips are automatically declared and taxed, by the way), so those tips are ALL they make, and they can STILL end up owing taxes to Uncle Sam at tax time. Oh, and yes, without health insurance, sick leave, vacation time or any other benefits, those tips must cover all of the above, on TOP of normal living expenses, like rent/mortgage, food, bills, etc. So yes, most servers I know work sick or injured, as long as they can keep putting one foot in front of the other, and Tylenol is our best friend! A good server making $600-800 a week might SEEM like alot, when compared to other jobs, but since no benefits are included, it's really not. It takes a LOT of $100 nights to make a mortgage payment, at least in my area, and yes, almost every adult server I know has been in foreclosure, at least once, due to unexpected time off work for injury or illness, or a myriad of other reasons. Heck, even a string of "slow" nights can impact your budget, massively! We work weekends, holidays, and pretty much any shift we can get, just to make ends meet. For the record, I've been doing it 20 years, and yes, I have a college degree (Business), and left a job as a paralegal to return to what I love (serving)! Just paid off my home last month, and will have one of my two investment properties paid off within the next year. Not ALL servers are lazy, thieving idiots. There are good and bad employees in any business. Some of us actually bust our butts for the business, since when when the business makes money, so do we.

September 24 2013 at 10:40 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to TINA's comment

I have one problem with this post. You say that credit card tips are automatically taxed. Wow, how shocking that servers are supposed to pay their taxes, just like everyone else!

I am a professional poker player. As with any cash income, people will cheat. I know that. It doesn't make it right. I keep good records, and when I make $100 on a music job, or win money at a poker tournament, it all gets written down, and I play taxes on all my income.

A lot of poker players don't do that, but it's going to come back to bite them. With poker now being played on government-regulated poker sites in Nevada, with New Jersey soon to follow, those sites will keep records of player wins and losses, and you can bet that the government will want their cut.

Once the state tqaxing authorities and the IRS see those numbers, there is no more hiding. And that's only the beginning. A lot of players won't show a similar income (or perhaps any income) from playing poker in prior years. Audits are sure to follow.

Nothing good can come from tax evasion. If you a driving a car that you shouldn't be able to afford, the IRS can figure that out. If you work at a restaurant, they can check the restaurant and make a pretty good estimate of what tip income is like--especiaily if a couple honest servers have reported all of their cash income, and both report tip income more than three times what you put down.

You play poker in a casino? IRS agents can visit your casino, ask around, and find out if you are a regular and/or a winning player.

Finally, if you are stupid enough to brag about evading taxes, as I've seen many poker players do online, you might get a call from the IRS. If you brag to a friend about it, and your friend sees a commerical saying that the IRS pays people who turn in cheaters. . .

You get the idea. A lot of cheaters don't get caught, but when they do, the penalites, including possible seizure of assest or even jail time, are considerable. Don't go there.

As one player put it on the poker forums,

"If you value your freedom, just pay your taxes. All of them."

October 14 2013 at 1:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to cliftongop's comment

She was not suggesting taxes not be taken out. She was making a point, thats all.

October 14 2013 at 4:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down
Audrey De Jesus

No reason why businesses can't pay a living wage of $ 12.50---$ 15 an hour.

September 24 2013 at 10:20 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Audrey De Jesus's comment

Its depends on individual company.

September 24 2013 at 11:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Just as there's no reason you can't pay an extra $10,000-15,000 in income taxes.

October 14 2013 at 3:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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