People in the US love to eat out, and the restaurant industry is an intrinsic part of US culture. The restaurant industry is of particular importance to the economy of this nation’s growing cities, like Nashville, yet it fails to live up to its promise: The restaurant industry should provide livable wage jobs to at the very least a proportionate number of workers of color, yet instead it disproportionately delegates workers of color to poverty level wages and denies workers the opportunity to advance. This is one of the many reasons why the Food Justice Movement was founded.
Although there are a variety of definitions and features of Food Justice (FJ), organizations, activists, and researchers have traditionally focused their attention on the distributional aspects of FJ while largely neglecting its participatory aspects. Consequently, FJ has been primarily defined concerning how to address and correct distributional food inequities (Loo, 2014). An example of this type of partial conceptualization can be found in Gottlieb and Joshi’s (2010) characterization of FJ:
. . . we characterize food justice as ensuring that the benefits and risk of where, what, and how food is grown and produced, transported and distributed, and accessed and eaten are shared fairly (as cited in Loo, 2014, p. 791).
What is missing in this definition is the acknowledgment of the voices, values and roles played by those who are exposed to these risks, and to other barriers and bridges to their participation in things that might mitigate them and benefit their communities. Thus, any attempts to achieve food justice would try to support and secure the rights of all people and communities to design and participate in decisions, practices, programs and food policies that impact the health and sustainability of their communities. Consequently, issues related to democratic principles, governance, and human rights need to be included in any comprehensive definition of food justice.
Food Justice advocates have many concerns about the current food system. These include unfair and unsustainable land-use practices, greater exposure to health and environment risks, immigrant and farmworker exploitation, greater community dependency and vulnerability, and to other unjust socio-environmental conditions. 6 However, the underlining goal of food justice regardless of the issues is to challenge the injustices which exist in the current food system that dominates all other voices, values, and alternatives.
Restaurant staff are divided into two groups. “Front of house” workers interact with guests and include servers and bussers. Those in the “back of the house” are much less visible, and include chefs, line workers, and dishwashers.
The practice of tipping front of house staff creates a unique rift. As a result, who works where is one of the major sources of injustice in the industry. Front of house staff are primarily white, while people of color and immigrants hold a disproportionate number of the lowest-paid positions in the back of the house. In addition to the economic disparities that this creates, it is also worth asking what it says about the types of faces that employers want visible on the front lines of their companies.
Today, nearly half of every food dollar spent in the U.S. goes to the restaurant industry, a share that has nearly doubled over the last 60 years. The food industry employs nearly 11 million workers nationwide, making it one of the nation’s largest employers outside of the public sector.20 It is expected to add 1.5 million jobs over the next decade.21 Despite the industry’s growth, restaurant workers occupy seven of the ten lowest-paid occupations reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.2 the industry is responsible for many poverty level jobs, it provides livable-wage jobs to only twenty percent of its workforce, but has the potential to provide a sustainable career ladder to millions of workers.
The economic position of workers of color in the restaurant industry is particularly precarious. Restaurant workers experience poverty at nearly three times the rate of workers overall, and workers of color experience poverty at nearly twice the rate of white restaurant workers.4
Restaurant workers are often left out of discussions about food justice, a major oversight considering that there are more than 13 million of them in the U.S. alone—nearly 1 of every 10 workers in the country. As a result, employment practices in the restaurant industry have a big impact. Unfortunately, this impact is on the whole a negative one.
workers of color, and in particular Black Front-of-House workers, find that they are structurally excluded from their chosen profession. Black Front-of-House workers face over twice the rate of unemployment as that faced by white workers. Among workers who describe their occupation as Front-of-House, 22% of Black workers are unemployed, compared to 10% of White workers and 11% of Latino workers. This matches the national pattern of Black unemployment persistently being twice that of white workers. Black restaurant workers are unable to find employment in Front-of-House positions at twice the rate of whites, even though restaurants are experiencing positive growth.
It’s not just racial minorities who struggle in the restaurant world. Women comprise 71 percent of tipped servers and are two times more likely to rely on food stamps. Many of these women also are mothers, and barely scrape by on unsustainable income. According to a ROC United report, women of color face significant barriers in obtaining livable-wage positions in this industry. Though they make up the highest percentage of those working in the Front-of-the-House (36 percent) and the Back-of-the-House (23 percent), they earn the lowest wages in both categories: $10.21 and $9.92 per hour. In addition to earning poverty wages, women working in restaurants face five times more sexual harassment than those in other professions. In fact, an astronomical 37 percent of EEOC sexual harassment charges came from women working in the restaurant industry.
Restaurant workers have the lowest reported wages of any occupation tracked by the United States Department of Labor, and food system workers are twice as likely to use food stamps as the rest of the population. However, The restaurant industry argues that an increase in the minimum wage for tipped workers is not necessary because livable wages are available in Front-of-the-House positions in fine-dining,5 but these livable wage opportunities are available to only a small percentage of workers.
Their lack of health insurance forces many restaurant workers to depend on emergency rooms in lieu of a family doctor. By failing to provide benefits like these, restaurant owners offload their responsibilities onto taxpayers who, through their support of public services and assistance programs, effectively pay for benefits in the employers’ stead.
Subsisting on minimum wage is enough to put many families under the poverty line, but wage theft—that is, the deliberate withholding of wages from workers—is a common problem for both tipped and non-tipped workers. According to the Department of Labor, the food services industry is one of the biggest violators of wage and labor laws; in 2016, the department found that the industry owed $39 million in back wages. Wage theft takes many forms: not paying for overtime work, failing to properly distribute tips, and withholding paychecks, among others. Tipped workers are especially vulnerable to wage theft. Federally, the minimum wage for tipped workers is a mere $2.13 per hour. Employers are required by law to make up the difference if this base wage plus a worker’s tips fail to meet or exceed the standard federal minimum wage of $7.25.
In practice, however, this requirement is difficult to enforce. The temptation for employers to disregard the law has only grown over the past two decades, which have seen no change in the tipped minimum wage despite increases (however small and insufficient) in the minimum for non-tipped workers. As a result, the gulf between the two wages is greater than ever.
The federal minimum wage for tipped employees in Tennessee — without state minimum wage laws– is set at $2.13 per hour. Some employees claim employers are even taking their tips, such as Alec Marsh, a former server at the Tennessee-based chain J. Alexander’s. He has filed a Tennessee labor lawsuit against the restaurant, also claiming he was paid reduced wages and treated as a tipped employee when he performed tasks unrelated to serving and bartending. (Thirteen former server and bartenders made similar claims in separate lawsuits filed against chain restaurants Denny’s, International House of Pancakes, P.F Chang’s, China Bistro and others.)
Alec Marsh, a former server at the Tennessee-based chain J. Alexander’s, claimed the restaurant took his tips, paid reduced wages and treated him as a tipped employee when he performed tasks unrelated to serving and bartending. Thirteen former server and bartenders made similar claims in separate lawsuits filed against chain restaurants Denny’s, International House of Pancakes, P.F Chang’s, China Bistro and others.
On Sept 18, 2018, U.S Circuit Judge Richard Paez said the Labor Department regulations prohibit employers from taking tip credits for non-tipped tasks performed by tipped workers. This ruling is likely of great interest to the hospitality industry as it allows workers to pursue claims that they were owed the full minimum wage for time spent performing non-tipped tasks —such as washing dishes, cleaning toilets or food prep– unrelated to their tipped occupations.
It also means that plaintiffs can go ahead with claims regarding non-incidental tasks related to serving or bartending, such as hours spent cleaning and maintaining soft drink dispensers in excess of 20 percent of the workweek. But which duties count toward this 20 percent threshold is ambiguous. For instance, bartenders wash glasses and servers almost always perform some light cleaning duties…
Across the country, working people in the restaurant industry, along with organizations like ROC United, CTUL, and other advocates, are fighting hard to make crucial changes to the tipped wage system so more men and women can earn a fair return on their work. An increased minimum wage or eliminating tipping practices would solve the critical inequality issues women and people of color face, and help close the pay gap and wealth gap. It also would significantly increase economic and social opportunities for this group of working people, as well as for their families and their futures.
It’s also shocking to learn that the history of tipping has racist roots. Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United), explains European aristocrats first popularized the practice by slipping gratuities to their hosts’ servants. By the mid-1800s, rich Americans normalized tipping. Restaurants and rail operators embraced tipping “because it enabled them to save money by hiring newly freed slaves to work for tips alone.” To this day, the exploitation continues.
Inequality among people working in restaurants results from various structural and racial barriers. This group already earns the lowest wages out of all jobs in the United States, with limited opportunities for economic advancement. But people of color, primarily Blacks and Latinos, experience issues with transportation, high costs of childcare, lack of social networks, and prior interactions with the criminal justice system, which exclude or prevent them from advancing in their careers. Also, restaurant owners’ explicit and implicit bias plays a role. Those interviewed for a study on racial and gender segregation in the industry exhibited employer discrimination and “more segregation between service and kitchen positions.” Because a higher percentage of Whites work the Front-of-the-House, while people of color worked the Back-of-the-House, (or are completely absent from restaurants that are not ‘ethnic’), opportunities for higher pay and career development for the latter group are slim-to-none.
Although many servers find it challenging to make ends meet on tipped income, studies show that white male servers receive higher tips than Blacks in the same role. Of all people who work in restaurants, White men typically earn the most and hold the highest paying positions (like managers and bartenders). In comparison, people of color tend to land lower paid opportunities, like cashiers, counter attendants, dishwashers and dining room attendants. Currently, non-whites working in restaurants earn 56 percent less than their white counterparts.
Tip-pooling, the practice of collecting and re-distributing tip revenues among the entire staff, has long been contentious, with the debate leading to a ban by the Department of Labor under the Obama administration in 2011. A new tip-pooling proposal under Trump’s labor department takes the opposite stance, arguing that employers should be able to collect worker tips and redistribute them as they see fit — to back-of-house workers, for instance. Critics say that the bill, as proposed, will give restaurant owners a legal opportunity to keep tip revenue, rather than actually redistributing it back to workers.
The best way to fix the broken institution of American tipping, Reyes argues, is to pay restaurant servers like any other non-tipped professional.
Ultimately, an equitable tipping system will require getting rid of the subminimum tipped wage and paying servers, bartenders, and other service employees the standard minimum wage, while allowing them to receive bonuses for exceptional service. However that happens, everyone involved in America’s restaurant culture — owners, servers, and diners — will have to play a part.
Restaurant owners in Nashville have a lot of competition these days. The number of restaurants in the city has grown 10% since 2010. Compare that to the 0.1% growth in the number of restaurants across the country. That means the Nashville area has added 100% more restaurants than the national average, according to the National Restaurant Association.
This year, more than 100 restaurants and bars are slated to set up shop there, according to the city’s tourism bureau. The number of food places has grown by nearly a third over the last decade. The number of qualified employees in Nashville is limited, and there’s already high turnover in the restaurant industry. The result is a classic case of supply and demand, said Crowell, with Nashville Originals. Facing higher demand for workers and not enough supply, restaurants are forced to make themselves more attractive.
The Nashville market is reflective of a nationwide labor crisis that has hit the restaurant and hospitality industry particularly hard. The number of restaurants in the U.S. continues to grow — albeit at a modest 1 percent per year — and more people are needed to staff those eateries, but unemployment remains very low.
The labor shortage is felt acutely in Nashville, which has emerged as a popular culinary destination and attracted the investment of chefs and restaurateurs from across the U.S. About 43 percent of restaurant operators report that recruitment and retention are a top issue, and an additional 14 percent report labor costs are a top issue, per the National Restaurant Association. But each new restaurant and hotel opening requires dozens of workers, and the demand is far outpacing supply. “Five years ago, if you didn’t have a resume, you weren’t in. You couldn’t even get an interview. Now, if you can carry a knife, you are hired,” said Johann Porisch, a restaurant industry veteran
Desperate to hire staff, operators are turning to expensive marketing campaigns, hiring bonuses and even poaching workers from their competition just to find enough employees to keep their businesses up and running.
Across the board, local restaurateurs say back of house positions are the hardest to fill, including line cooks and dishwashing positions. Entry-level restaurant positions tend to be a revolving door, especially in a strong job market, and operators are struggling to attract and retain staff. Staci Wolff, the owner of 312 Pizza, said job-hopping is common in the Nashville restaurant “This industry needs to catch up as far as giving people benefits and time off and maternity leave, which is really hard to do with profit margins, but I don’t think as an industry we’ve made the jump we need to in order to make people happy and make them feel like they can make this a career,” Weaver said.industry. She’s had employees not show up or leave in the middle of their shifts, which means managers need to jump in line to cook or wash dishes. That turnover is costly and puts a strain on business.
restaurant wages increase slightly, but not enough to offset Nashville’s rising cost of living and pricey housing market. He said it’s difficult to recruit restaurant and hospitality workers to relocate to Nashville.
“I think there is one really good thing that has come out of this (labor shortage) for employees — companies across the board are upping their benefits. If you have good employees, you want to keep them,” said Claire Crowell, chief operating officer for A. Marshall Hospitality.
This could mean better pay, but it also could mean more substantive changes, like improving workplace culture and adding benefits to a job that typically hasn’t had them — health insurance, vacation time, even 401(k)s.
Retirement plans are especially rare in the restaurant industry: In 2014, 8.4 percent of restaurant workers had some sort of pension plan at their job, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
And here’s a Catch-22 Hawkins sees: Employers are unable to raise hourly rates because their labor funds are being devoured by overtime pay, which they are forced to pay employees because they are understaffed. The industry is trying to attract workers is by, among other things, offering culinary scholarships through Metro with the Hospitality Academy and working with the mayor’s office on a program called Opportunity Now. That program tries to find folks that potentially are in areas that have a higher unemployment rate than Nashville. The association is also working with groups such as Room in the Inn and Goodwill Industries to offer hospitality training.
Ultimately the staffing shortage can affect a hotel and restaurant’s brand, not to mention Nashville’s brand as a tourist destination, if it translates into a less-than-stellar night out in Music City.
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