One of the largest labor sectors in the U.S., the restaurant industry, has nearly half of its workers living under the income threshold required for a family to make ends meet, among many terrible working conditions, according to a new report. 

The study just released by the Economic Policy Institute, Low Wages and Few Benefits Mean Many Restaurant Workers Can’t Make Ends Meet,underscores several areas of research on working conditions in which the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United) has served as a leader since its founding in 2002. Unfortunately, many of the restaurant industry’s most devastating statistics have not improved over the years.
Highlights from the report’s key findings below:

  • After accounting for demographic differences, restaurant workers have hourly wages that are 17.2 percent lower than those of similar workers outside the restaurant industry.
  • More than two in five restaurant workers, or 43.1 percent, live below twice the poverty line—more than double the 19.9 percent share outside the restaurant industry. (Twice the official poverty threshold is commonly used by researchers as a measure of what it takes for a family to make ends meet.)
  • Women are much more likely than men to be cashiers/counter attendants, hosts, and wait staff, and earn less than men in every restaurant occupation except for dining room attendants/bartender helpers, where they make roughly the same. 
  • The largest restaurant industry occupation is waiter/waitress, which makes up nearly a quarter (23.3 percent) of all restaurant jobs.

“It’s simply not acceptable for one of the most profitable industries out there to provide the absolute lowest paying jobs and keep workers in poverty,” says Saru Jayaraman, co-founder and co-director of ROC United. “It’s an enormous testament to the power of the restaurant industry and its lobby group, the National Restaurant Association, that the tipped minimum wage has been frozen at the appallingly low rate of $2.13 an hour since 1991, and they get away with passing the responsibility of paying their employees directly onto the customer. 

"We’ve known for a long time that the restaurant industry needs to get its act together, but if we’re going to make progress, we have to bring the undue influence of the National Restaurant Association to light. There are great restaurant owners out there, many of them are our employer partners and members of RAISE (Restaurants Advancing Industry Standards in Employment), but the prevalence of horrible labor standards has a detrimental and lasting effect, especially with regard to women.

“Women are more than 70 percent of people getting paid a subminimum wage and living off tips; as a result, the EEOC has targeted the restaurant industry as the single largest source of sexual harassment charges, with a rate five times higher than any other sector. We’ve heard from numerous members about putting up with unwanted sexual advances from co-workers, management, and customers, and they are told, too often, that’s ‘it’s just part of the job.’ 

"Imagine that your ability to make decent pay is directly linked, through earning tips, to your ability to endure sexual harassment. That’s an experience a woman takes with her for the rest of her life, and perhaps one of the most important reasons to do away with the two-tiered system of having a subminimum wage for tipped workers.”

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