A few weeks ago I did a post on job opportunities for chefs. Today, another look at the back of the house, courtesy of the Restaurant Opportunities Center in NYC. Born out of efforts to help more than 300 restaurant workers displaced by the 9/11 World Trade Center attack, ROC has expanded to help restaurant workers throughout the city. They do it through research, training, organizing, policy advocacy, and lawsuits when necessary.
Their focus is the "back of the house" - dishwashers, cooks, cleaners - all the folks you don't see when you go out to eat. These are predominantly immigrants who often don't know wage and hour laws, or feel they can't fight their employers. ROC's research has found they run into a glass ceiling at many high-end restaurants. ROC is currently picketing NYC's famous restaurant Daniel, arguing, among other things, that owner Daniel Boulud regularly passes over qualified Latino and South Asian workers for promotion.
BLS data shows some 6.8 million Food and Beverage Serving workers in the U.S. in 2004. Unfortunately, their data on wages doesn't differentiate fine dining establishments from Denny's. Furthermore, some states allow restaurant worker wages to be lower than the minimum wage, leaving tips to make up the difference. In some restaurants, wait staff contribute to a tip pool that is shared with non-tipped employees. I once worked a busser at one such restaurant, and I can assure you, we didn't get what we thought was our fair share.
ROC Executive Director Saru Jayaraman says restaurants that violate labor laws often also violate health codes, so they're working to get the city health department to hold restaurants accountable. If you've read Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, you know what she's talking about.
What I'm struck by is the strong parallels between this workforce and farmworkers. A predominantly immigrant workforce hidden from view, that quietly delivers quality food to our tables. It's also an industry that's largely underserved by the workforce development system.